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New biography traces path of famed Newfoundland singer Georgina Stirling
This book is subtitled “an intimate biography,” an in-depth and detailed examination of “The Nightingale of the North,” as famed for her tragedy as for her voice. It’s laid out in 16 chapters, written in turns by Tonia Evans Cianciulli and her grandfather, Calvin D. Evans, illustrated with gorgeous photos, and buttressed with a range of Appendices.
The text is leavened with Cianciulli’s heartfelt philosophy and her passionate feeling for and connection to Stirling. Your appreciation of this might be measured by your tolerance for such statements as: “We are all individually blessed to leave our footprint on the path of life’s journey – little pieces of ourselves scattered around for the world to remember us.” (Mine isn’t high, but I’m not everybody.)
As Cianciulli writes, “I view my role in this book as an interpreter … There has been much lingering mystery and hearsay around the life and career of Newfoundland’s late Nightingale, Georgina Stirling.”
She has also “chosen to share some of my own experiences as a professional singer and the experiences of other industry professional in order to lend understanding and compassion for the significance Georgina Stirling played in Newfoundland and Canadian music history.”
Stirling is both a known and an unknown to us. When she was born in Twillingate in 1867, the town was called the “Capital of the North,” a fishing and commercial hub with international maritime links. Significantly, it had a healthy musical culture, even as it lay far from opera classes and performances.
Stirling had undeniable talent, and her family had the means to support her aspirations. By 1888, aged 21, she was in Europe. And for a time she had tremendous success. But that arc was abbreviated. As Evans writes, “Georgina’s life was divided into two periods of thirty-four years each – 1867 to 1901, years of joy and jubilation, and 1901 to 1935, years of despair, depression, and ever-approaching death from cancer.”
Stirling’s life is contextualized by contemporary sources, including her own letters, and later, performance reviews and posters.
The cadence of the book swings between the historical and the personal. On the factual side, the authors are meticulous and careful to correct some mistaken assumptions – some stemming from Amy Louise Peyton’s “Nightingale of the North.” The timeline of Stirling’s movements in Europe, for example; they hold that is was 1890-91, not 1888, when she first reached Paris, as well as clarifying other European trips and stays, and who she studied with and when.
They also access newspaper archives, like this review from the “St. Joseph Herald” of Missouri: “’We are able to hear one of the greatest sopranos in the world, Mlle. [Stirling], who is said to be the best dramatic singer on the lyrical stage.’”
Underscoring the biographical intimacy, Cianciulli continues to find parallels.
“In 1897, when Georgina returned home from the United States for summer holidays, she was in high demand to sing as part of the Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations for the laying of the cornerstones for Cabot Tower on Signal Hill and the Victoria Wing of the General Hospital. She was asked to sing our Royal Anthem, ‘God Save the Queen.’ As soon as I read this, I made an amazing realization. Exactly one hundred years after this occasion, when I was twenty-five years old, I was asked to perform at the 100th Anniversary of Guglielmo Marconi’s first transatlantic wireless communication, at a gala in Toronto for his granddaughter, Princess Elettra Marconi. I delighted in sharing this story in concert with the audiences in Newfoundland before asking them to stand and join me in the singing of ‘God Save the Queen.’”
She also provides tremendous insight into the demands of opera and opera singing. “Most would think this type of high-pressure environment is more believable in the world of competitive sports or in the pop and rock scene. Seeping into the high-class and fairy-tale world of opera, more frequently are drugs in the form of beta blocker to ease the butterflies and stage fright, cortisol shots for inflamed vocal cords, antidepressants for depression and overwhelm, and plastic surgery and unhealthy weight-control tactics to keep up with the ever-growing demand to look perfect.”
There’s also a nice throughline concerning the late Ron Hynes and his song “Marie.”
The book includes colour, or colourized, photographs, such as a promotional “headshot in blue gown” from the Sofia Scalchi Opera Company Tour 1897-98, and “Georgina with two of her travelling cats” (“travelling cats” is the best idea ever), and closes with six Appendices, a Bibliography, and an Index.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.