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From College Security Guard to Opera Sensation, At the Age of 82

Rebecca White

Richard Alan White is now long retired from his paying job--that as a security guard at Daniel Webster College. But the Manchester, New Hampshire-native is seeing his other career, that of music composer, finally gaining traction. White’s 900-page opera Hester is getting its debut Thursday in New York City.

(Editor’s Note: We strongly recommend listening to this story.)

Before he was a composer, Richard Alan White was a kid growing up in Manchester, in a house full of music.

“My mother was a singer, and trained voice, and she sang professionally, and I can remember hearing her sound,” says White.

The second musical constant was the Saturday performances of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

“I got a sense of music, and also a sense that it is important,” he says.

It would take 82 years before White’s own full-scale work would be in the hands of a professional company. It’s a story of persistence, sure, but not in a Hollywood ‘I’m going to prove them wrong’ kind of way. Instead, White speaks of his below-the-radar life in music like it’s been a reward--that he’s always found pleasure in simply wandering around the notes.

After performing in musicals at Manchester Central High School in the early 1950s, he earned a music degree at the University of New Hampshire. From there, he was off to New York, to take in all the city offered.

“You see, being in the West Village, you could cut it with a knife: there were writers all over the place, and painters.”

White immersed himself in the music and theater scene. He took evening classes at Juilliard, sang in church choirs, and then worked his way through a masters degree.

Credit Courtesy of Richard White
White, playing the clarinet in the back row, seen here with bandmates from Manchester Central High School.

“When I finally got my Masters of Arts at Columbia University, the first job I got was loading trucks for United Parcel Service,” he says with a laugh.

That blue collar job would be the first of many for White. Instead of living hand to mouth as a struggling artist, or on a piano bench enduring music lessons with tone-deaf kids, he sought out steady paychecks. He took on jobs that would leave him free for his real, if unpaid, career.

“Music was my full-time occupation, I have to say, because I tended to take jobs which I would work in the evenings, and I have my days for my music.”

That’s how White, along with his wife and kids, would eventually land back in New Hampshire, in the early 1990s. He got a job as an overnight security guard at Daniel Webster College in Nashua.

“Sometimes he would drop in...and we would chat,” says Hannah McCarthy, who spent 25 years as Daniel Webster’s president. One of her initiatives at the school was placing donated pianos around the campus.

“We had a plan that we were going to put a piano everywhere we had social space. So we had a piano in our dining hall at the college, and we had it at the student center, and two of our residence halls.”

McCarthy says she was unaware that a trained composer, doubling as a school security guard, may have been tinkering away on his grand opus on one of these pianos.

White does remember playing on those pianos, but he promises that when he was on the clock, the task at hand was always his priority. Although, musical threads would inevitably come to him on the job.

“I suppose with this job, walking around with a nightstick, keys, and handcuffs, that I would be by myself. I guess I have to admit that, yes. That my mind would be clearer,” he says.

From that mind came a 900-page opera that took decades to complete. The work, Hester, is named after the main character of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter.

Earlier this year, White moved from Milford, N.H., to Brooklyn, N.Y., to be closer to his daughter, Rebecca, who submitted her dad’s work to the Center for Contemporary Opera in Manhattan.

“It is a wonderful story that Mr. White has, but if the work wasn’t worthy of a performance, we wouldn’t have done it,” says Jim Schaeffer, general and artistic director of the Center for Contemporary Opera. “It was worthy.”

The opera’s debut is already sold out, but the company added a second show for this weekend. White, admittedly, is uneasy about the attention.

“I don’t know what they are going to think of me, so it’s a little nervous. I think the music is done, great music, but I really don’t know if it is going to be great, or not so great.”

Reviews aside, White already has one admirer in his former boss at Daniel Webster College, Hannah McCarthy.

“He was good, he was so good,” she says. “But what he really had, he had so much passion for this. I mean he gave his entire life to this work. He made choices so he could do what he knew would be beautiful, and I expect that it will be.”

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.
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