Nfld. & Labrador

Soprano resurrects Ron Hynes and legendary opera singer through one tribute

Marie Toulinguet, Ron Hynes and Tonia Cianciulli. Three Newfoundland musicians linked through one beautiful song.

How a Ron Hynes song helps Tonia Cianciulli honour her opera hero, dead almost a century

Singer Tonia Cianciulli stands near the gravestone of late Newfoundland-born opera singer Georgina Stirling in Twillingate, N.L. (Submitted)

More than 150 years after the birth of Newfoundland-born opera singer Georgina Stirling, fellow Newfoundland-born soprano Tonia Cianciulli performed a Ron Hynes tune honouring Stirling, on the very spot — in the very church — she sang. 

"To sing in that church was, for me, a more thrilling experience than any huge stage I've performed on," says Cianciulli.

But to understand this story, you have to understand who Georgina Stirling was. 

Born in Twillingate, N.L., in 1866 or 1867 (sources differ), Stirling went from entertaining parishioners at St. Peter's Anglican church in Twillingate to touring with international opera companies — after she was discovered while studying singing in Paris. 

Stirling was an internationally renowned opera singer in the late 1800s. (Archives and Special Collections (Coll-251), Memorial University of Newfoundland)

She took on the stage name Marie Toulinguet, the French name for Twillingate, and had an illustrious career.

Known as "the Nightingale of the North," her career was cut short by a throat ailment, and Stirling eventually returned to Twillingate, where she died of cancer on Easter Sunday, 1935. 

The 'man of a thousand songs'

Stirling's health issues may have been what connected legendary singer-songwriter Ron Hynes to the late soprano. 

Diagnosed with throat cancer in 2012, Hynes died from a second round of cancer in October 2015. 

Ron Hynes, a musician originally from Ferryland, N.L., died in 2015. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

One of his last songs, Marie, is all about the Twillingate singer, although Hynes's voice was well-battered by his illness when he recorded it. 

It was released after his death on the album Later That Same Life​, and now, thanks to soprano Tonia Cianciulli, who was born in St. John's but splits her time between Miami and Toronto, Marie has a whole new audience. 

'I just fell in love with her'

Cianciulli told CBC Radio One's On the Go she connected with Stirling through reading a book her grandparents gave her years ago, The Nightingale of the North by Amy Louise Peyton.

"I was just getting more and more excited, the more I read it, discovering that a lot of her repertoire is very similar to repertoire of my own," said Cianciulli. 

"I just fell in love with her, because from what I read, she really sounded like such a beautiful, kind, gentle person who was very family-oriented and had an incredible heart."

Like Stirling, Cianciulli grew up singing in churches. 

"[Stirling] would come home and sing the music that people loved to hear, the music that, I feel, really stirs your heart and soul," said the fellow soprano. 

So last year Cianciulli put together a program of music that best represented Stirling's life, and started calling different churches in the province, booking performances last summer in St. John's and Twillingate and returning in August this year. 

Connecting through music

Cianciulli met singer/songwriter/photographer Chris LeDrew, and he asked if she knew the song Marie.

She didn't, and couldn't find it anywhere — until she ran into Hynes's manager, who got her the late legend's recording as well as the lyrics. 

Cianciulli performs in St. Peter's Anglican Church in Twillingate in August 2017. (Submitted)

"It brought me to tears, and I fell in love with that song immediately and just started working on it on my own and ended up throwing it into the program of music at the last minute," said Cianciulli. 

"Then to sing Marie in St. Peter's Church where she would have stood, I got goosebumps while I was singing. It was very thrilling."

She decided to record it as well. 

"It was such an amazing representation of what Georgina must have been through … as a performer, and an incredible piece to represent two amazing Newfoundland musicians."

Cianciulli said it was very clear through the book that Stirling's heart always lived in Twillingate. 

"Nothing compares to home and being with those that you love."