One classically trained, successful, and accomplished Newfoundland-born operatic singer has dedicated the past few years of her life, and a good chunk of her immediate future, to extolling the career of another classically-trained, accomplished Newfoundland opera star, one born around the time Canada came its own country, and who, today would have been considered a media darling, with a monster social media presence.
Tonia Evans Cianciulli has an impressive singing career in her own right, but for the foreseeable future, she is utilizing her considerable talents, time and energy to highlight a seemingly forgotten superstar of the opera world, Twillingate-born and raised Georgina Stirling. For about 15 years over the waning decades of the Victorian era, Stirling was one of the biggest names in opera, which made her a ‘celebrity’ of worldwide proportions by the measurements in the pre-radio, TV and internet era.
While Cianciulli continues to perform dozens of shows a year throughout Canada and increasingly in the US and is garnering great reviews and glowing press for her two most recent albums, one a tribute to Stirling, the other a tribute to Newfoundland troubadour Ron Hynes (more about both later in the article), Stirling’s legacy has been nearly forgotten, even in her home province.
Heart’s Obsession is the name of the book and album about Stirling, meant to evoke the idea that woman from a small fishing community in Newfoundland can reach her dreams of singing on some of the biggest stages in the world. It could also refer to the amount of passion and dedication Cianciulli herself has put into trumpeting the accomplishments of her artistic forbearer.
Besides having an impressive and fulfilling artistic career, Cianciulli is the epitome of creating excellent work/life balance, as she has been able to balance her continuing concert career (which is getting busier and busier since the release of her tribute book and album for Georgina Stirling] with being a full-time mom who home schools her children, as the family splits the year between Toronto and Miami.
Before family life beckoned, she performed in a number of operas throughout North America, then transitioning to using her exceptional voice and engaging stagecraft as a concert artist, performing a more diverse repertoire.
“I am doing more and more performing these days since this whole obsession with Georgina Stirling has started with the book and album. Now that I am getting into the music community in Miami and working with a new coach down there, I have been performing some concerts there as well. It’s mainly doing operatic and classical repertoire. I also do a lot of performing at women’s empowerment events, galas, fundraisers, motivational seminars. So, I have a wide range of material that I use for things like that, which is more inspirational in content. I just like to keep myself busy singing all kinds of different genres,” she said from her home in Toronto, during a press tour in December.
“I haven’t done full operas for a while. I did that up until I was about three months pregnant with my first child and I stopped singing to have a family. Once I did get back into music, I actually did some production work for a while and ran some artist courses on the behind-the-scenes aspects of being a performer, just whatever I could to stay in the industry, but also be a full-time mom. It’s hard to have a career where you’re doing the fully-staged operas non stop with a full time family, especially since I did make the choice to homeschool. And, to be honest with you, I always enjoyed concert singing more because I find that I can connect with the audience better and experience a variety of different genres and emotions within on evening’s program.
“I can totally bring out a ‘greatest hits’ opera repertoire and a lot of people really appreciate that, because they want a taste of opera, but they don’t necessarily want to sit through a two or three-hour production where they don’t have clue what’s happened unless they’re glued to the subtitles.”
So, what was it about Georgina Stirling, known primarily to the rest of the world by her stage name Marie Toulinquet [the original French name for her hometown of Twillingate], that is so fascinating for Cianciulli? Even a cursory dive onto the internet reveals the answer to that question, as she left the continent at age 21 in the late 1880s to study in the opera hotbeds of Paris, Italy and Germany.
“She went to Paris to study with an incredible teacher named Madame Mathilde Marchesi, who was responsible for preserving and teaching and passing on the bel canto technique, which so many singers follow. The fact that Georgina got to study with that woman, who was responsible for releasing many very famous prima donnas into the world opera stages, like Nellie Melba, Jenny Lind and lots of others. To think that this woman left Twillingate, which, at the time was a major out port in Newfoundland, but in relation to the rest of the world, it’s a small fishing village where most women were raising families, having children, cleaning fish, keeping a house, and she goes off to Europe and studies with these great figures in opera history,” Cianciulli explained, adding that while performing at one of Marchesi’s shows, Stirling was discovered by the artistic director of a Milan-based opera company, with some research showing she made her debut on the stage at La Scala, one of the most prestigious opera venues of all time, including up to the present.
“She toured extensively across the United States. She was performing with the top musicians and orchestras of the day and was seen as the next world famous prima donna. But she had a problem with her vocal cords and there was a year of silence where no one heard from her. Even though Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada then [it wouldn’t join Confederation until 1949], most people were calling her Canadian, she was claimed by Canada. So, it’s my mission to not only educate more Newfoundlanders about her, because there are still a lot of Newfoundlanders who don’t know who she is and they need to know who she is, because she is an integral part of their history and culture. And most certainly I want the rest of Canada to know who she is, and I want her to be celebrated in Europe again as well. Really, she needs to be recognized and honoured worldwide.”
Stirling’s vocal issue took place around the turn of the 20th century, and when she recovered, her voice was no longer up to the rigours of opera, and she became a concert vocalist, singing a more diverse, and less strenuous repertoire. Later in her life, she moved back to Twillingate and become involved in various community activities, and also performed concerts regionally, primarily as fundraisers. She died in 1935 aged 68 (or 69 depending on what records you consult.)
Cianciulli admits that she ignored the Stirling biography for years because, literally, she judged the book by its cover, even though she was already very much into opera, even as a young girl.
“My grandparents gave me the book in 1993, and at the time I was really addicted to Maria Callas. Hearing her was the final piece of the puzzle that sealed the deal with me in terms of loving opera. And I judged a book by its cover in terms of that first short book on Georgina. I just put it on my shelf because it had this very plain brown cover. The content was great, but I judged the book by its cover, and it wasn’t until we were approaching the year of the Canada 150 celebration (2017), that I took the book off the shelf again and became completely immersed in her story. I read that book right through in a couple of days and discovered what an incredible trailblazer she was, what an incredible artist and the amount of success that she experienced. And I also learned that she was such a loving, down-to-earth human being, who was not only living here dreams and passions, but also of service to other people with her dreams and talents,” she said.
“And I came to feel very protective of her and her memory and her legacy, because there were ups and downs in her life, like with anyone else. And like any other artist or musician in the spotlight, there’s a lot of expectations and pressures that you’re living under and you struggle with that from time to time. We’re all human. I want to preserve her legacy, I want to set the record straight, I want the people to know how incredible an impact that she had on the world of opera and brought Newfoundland onto that international stage.”
The serendipitous rediscovery of the long-shelved Stirling biography stirred both Cianciulli’s creative spirit and Newfoundland pride leading to a flurry of activity that has led, in quite a truncated period of time, a book and two full length albums.
“While I was reading the book, I wrote down all the arias and solo pieces of her repertoire that I came across, and I discovered there were a lot of similarities between the repertoire that she performed and the ones that I performed. Immediately I decided to create a concert program based on this list, and to weave dialogue in between the pieces for the audience so they know the significance of these pieces and where she was at the time, for example if she was singing with the Boston Opera Company, etc.,” she said of the continuing concert series entitled Nightingale Sings, based on Stirling’s nickname, the Nightingale of the North.
“I came up with the program and started calling churches in Newfoundland, and I was anxious because this was something brand new, but I was met with warm, welcoming arms. They asked what I charged, and I said I was going to do it for free because this is a passion project and I was honoured just to be come and present this to an audience and share more about Georgina Stirling. As we were doing the concerts over the next few months, we were doing more research and people were coming forward with information and stories on social media, and so a couple of years ago we decided to write a book [The Heart’s Obsession: An Intimate Biography of Newfoundland Songstress Georgina Stirling, 2019, Flanker Press, co-authored with her grandfather, Newfoundland author Calvin D. Evans]. As we were writing the book, I kept doing the shows and getting to know her more through research and through performing the repertoire that really mean so much to her.
“So, it was a no brainer that, of course, we had to do an album [also called Heart’s Obsession]. But I did not want to do another opera arias album. I wanted to do an album of the pieces that meant the most to her for specific reasons and that she was well known for performing for her Newfoundland audiences when she came home from between contracts.”
As if she wasn’t busy enough, another home-grown musical Newfoundland icon, folk singer/songwriter Ron Hynes came into the picture with his own compelling connection to Georgina Stirling.
“Of course, I knew who Ron Hynes was growing up – a famous Newfoundland folk hero. But it wasn’t until I discovered his song ‘Marie’ that he wrote for Georgina that really brings her into the 21st century. I started to follow this sort of rabbit hole of his repertoire and I guess I am just an over-achiever and said, ‘why not just record a Ron Hynes album too, at the same time,’” she said of what would become Beckon Me Home – Treasured Songs by Ron Hynes, released simultaneously with Heart’s Obsession towards the end of 2019.
“Newfoundland label Citadel House got wind of what I was doing, and we had a conversation and they said they wanted to release both albums for me; they thought it would be fabulous to launch the albums at the same time as the book, so it’s been a really busy couple of years, but so worth it. And it’s amazing how the albums fit together, even though they are completely different genres, it just flows, it just works well somehow together, which is remarkable. And, honestly, now that the book and the albums are out, that was just the tip of the iceberg. It’s like, ‘here’s the material, and now we’ve got to share it and spread the word near and far.’”
Part of this strategy includes attending international book fairs to try and get distribution of the book outside of North America, particularly in Europe where opera is more of a staple in people’s lives and where Stirling had some of her greatest acclaim and achievements throughout her career.
There is also a musical based on Stirling’s life in the works.
“I will definitely be planting those seeds as the new year gets underway. I have got some meetings lined up with people I want to collaborate and work with, and I will only work with people who I feel a real, sincere, authentic connection with, because I just feel that’s the best way to produce the best work. I am working with someone to help continue to flesh out the program, weaving in the Georgina Stirling repertoire with the Ron Hynes repertoire and letting other messages come to the surface about the importance of following you own heart’s obsession and your passions and honouring your own culture and roots and family, and the sense of place Newfoundland has like no other. I just want to keep sharing about it – I kind of can’t get enough,” said Cianciulli.
For more information about Heart’s Obsession (the book and/or the CD), Beckon Me Home, Cianciulli’s other activities including shows, visit https://www.wisharts.ca.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The post Newfoundland Cultural Icons Stirling & Hynes Celebrated in Song by Soprano Tonia Evans Cianciulli appeared first on Music Life Magazine.