Brampton arts walk of fame recipient Othalie Graham makes emotional return to childhood home

Brampton-born, internationally-known opera singer Othalie Graham spent her middle and high school years living next to the greenhouse in Etobicoke’s Centennial Park, a magical place where her father was the greenhouse caretaker.

Soprano was one of five inducted into Brampton’s Arts Walk of Fame on Saturday

Opera singer Othalie Graham will be inducted into Brampton's Arts Walk of Fame Saturday. (CBC News\Tina Mackenzie)
Opera singer Othalie Graham will have her Canadian debut at Edmonton Opera in October. (Othalie Graham)

As a child Othalie Graham thought she lived in paradise.

The Brampton-born, internationally known opera singer spent her middle and high school years living next to the greenhouse in Etobicoke's Centennial Park, a magical place where her father was the greenhouse caretaker.

Gilly Graham was a beloved city employee who accepted the job in return for a reduced rent on the city-owned house next door and a commitment to be available 24/7 in case of emergencies.

For Othalie, who attended nearby Hollycrest Middle School and later Etobicoke School of the Arts, the greenhouse was her family's private sanctuary.

"It was such a magical place to be. We'd come in and it was pitch dark. My father would turn on a light or two, and it was like the greenhouse belonged to us. It was private and we were the only ones allowed in at night."

Living in Centennial Park also had its perks. During fireworks celebrations, Graham's father lifted his daughter in his bucket truck for a view that was "as close to the sky as possible."

Summers were spent lifeguarding at the nearby wading pool, and winters working in the chalet at the park's ski-hill.

The greenhouse's soaring ceiling and cavernous space also created the perfect acoustic for Graham to exercise her powerful voice.

Opera singer Othalie Graham performs her signature role in Puccini's Turando. (Othalie Graham)

'Enormous, uncontrolled' voice

It was a music teacher who first discovered Graham's "enormous, uncontrolled" vocal ability and let her parents know their daughter had something special.

Mom was thrilled to cart her daughter around to auditions. Dad, however, who had immigrated to Canada from Jamaica, was unsure, and had a more stable career in mind for his daughter.

"An immigrant parent's goal is for you to do better than what they had.  And the way to do that is through education, and a stable career. So that would a lawyer, a botanist, anything other than the crazy world of music."

Dad came around though and bought the family tickets to see acclaimed African-American opera singer Leontyne Price. The performance was a life changing moment for Graham.

"When she walked on stage, she was so majestic. The audience went crazy, and I said that is exactly what I want to do."

After high school, Graham went on to attend the renowned, invitation-only Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, where she lives today. Her career has taken her to opera houses around the world.

Despite the travel and success, her years living next to the greenhouse "were probably the best of my entire life so far," she says.

Father's death heartbreaking

Her father's sudden death from lymphoma in 1998 broke Graham and her mother's hearts.

On her recent visit, Graham visited a birch tree that was planted next to the family's former home in his memory.

"He loved this space. It was this little road where no other houses are; it's the perfect place to raise a really strong daughter."

Next month, Graham makes her Canadian debut with Edmonton Opera, singing her signature role as the princess in Puccini's Turandot.

"I think that every single country you sing in is a gift. You're thrilled to be making your living at your craft. That's rare and a gift. But to be able to sing in your own country — there's nothing more important than that."