TWILLINGATE, NL – Soprano songstress Tonia Cianciulli has discovered a fountain of musical influence and history in the life of Twillingate opera singer Georgina Stirling.
For the past few years, Stirling has become the central muse to Cianciulli’s creative endeavours, from development of a musical program based on the songbook of the “Nightingale of the North,” a new rendition of Ron Hynes’ song “Marie,” and now a biographical book about Stirling she is writing with her grandfather.
“It has taken over me,” said Cianciulli, who was born in St. John’s but lives now in Toronto and Miami. “It became a growing passion and I just wanted to find out more and more about Georgina.”
Through various efforts Cianciulli hopes to take Stirling’s eventful life – from being a young girl in an outport of the 1800s to a world-renowned opera singer who performed across Europe and the United States – and bring her story into the 21st century.
“It comes from wanting to educate people about her, and how incredible it is to grow up in a small fishing village and then have this international opera career in places like Italy and Paris,” said Cianciulli. “It’s quite remarkable I think.”
Canada’s 150 and the beginning of a book
While she grew up with a family rooted in Newfoundland music, it was only over a year ago that Cianciulli’s fascination with Stirling began. She read the book “Nightingale of the North” by Amy Louise Peyton and noticed that Canada’s 150th birthday coincided with Stirling’s, who would have also been 150 in 2017.
Taking great interest in Stirling’s life and noticing a similar repertoire in song choices, Cianciulli began developing a musical program to be performed at churches and venues across Newfoundland.
She brought the program to St. John’s and Twillingate last summer, with stories and anecdotes about Stirling’s life interjected between Cianciulli’s renditions.
Through making connections at these concerts, Cianciulli soon discovered her Stirling-centered career prospects were only just beginning.
Cianciulli and her grandfather – author Calvin Evans – were informed of new archival interviews with Stirling’s family members and people who knew her that had just arrived at Memorial University. As well, handwritten letters between Stirling and her sister had also been brought to the archives.
As Cianciulli and Evans began delving into this never-before-seen history, soon the decision to write a new book on Stirling’s life came to fruition. Now she and her grandfather keep in steady contact discussing the book and writing passages back and forth to one another. Cianciulli says it’s become a very special project between the two of them.
“We’ve both become addicted to this,” Cianciulli said with a laugh. “Georgina Stirling is all we talk about now; it’s really quite amazing.”
This new book about Stirling’s life will not only incorporate new-found research but also focus on her life as a performer – both the excitement and emotional distress and struggle of taking this huge step into the international and competitive world of opera in the late 1800s.
“From everything that I’ve read she seems like an incredibly sentimental and family-oriented person,” Cianciulli said. “To come from this tiny village with no idea of what the outside world would be like and to leave your family and dedicate yourself to a career where you’re abroad for years at a time. I find that extremely courageous.”
Another aspect of Stirling’s life that inspired Cianciulli is that despite all her worldly travels, Stirling never forgot her Newfoundland home.
“She never lost that sense of place,” said Cianciulli. “Even after her performances across Europe, when she came home she sang the music of the people.
“She sang the beautiful sacred solos, the songs of the murmuring sea, she sang at funerals. She seemed to have such a generous heart.”
The pair hope for one more round of research in the Memorial archives before they complete the book, projected to be completed and published by the summer of 2019.
In the midst of all her Stirling-related travels and connections, Cianciulli then came in contact with Ron Hynes’ song “Marie,” a track Hynes wrote for Stirling (titled after her stage name Marie Toulinguet) towards the final years of his life.
Cianciulli tracked down Hynes’ manager Charles MacPhail. When she decided to do her own rendition of the song, MacPhail was thrilled.
“We’ve been in touch ever since,” said Cianciulli. “He was so grateful when we did the song, because he said when Ron passed he said to [MacPhail] ‘keep my music alive brother.’
“It’s a real honour to be able to honour two incredible Newfoundland musicians with this song.”
Cianciulli has since released a music video to accompany her recording, filled with drone shots across the scenic landscape and outport scenes of Twillingate Island.
To coincide with the book, Cianciulli is also reworking her program from last summer with new passages to be spoken between her performances. Evans will now take a key role in the performance, reciting the passages as Cianciulli performs new tracks from Stirling’s extensive songbook.
The program will be performed in St. John’s at the Gower United Church on Sunday, Aug. 19 and in Twillingate at St. Peter’s on Friday, Aug. 24.
An everlasting bond
Cianciulli has formed a strong connection and bond to the life and music of Georgina Stirling. Whether its performances, renditions or writing, Cianciulli is glad to use the power of music to keep Stirling’s memory alive for the next generation.
“When I put my son to bed now he demands me to sing ‘Marie’ every night,” Cianciulli said with a laugh. “It’s amazing how it has impacted all our lives so hugely.
“That’s the beautiful thing about music and passing down history.”