Newfoundlandia: Georgina Stirling “The Nightingale of the North”

From wowing Twillingate as a child, to wowing France, Italy, and the world in adulthood ...

Our streets are soaked in talent and always have been. Occasionally, however, someone takes the stage and stills the air if only for an instant. On April 3rd 1867 a star was born and the world would take notice.

Into a calm Twillingate night Georgina Ann Stirling stretched her lungs. The youngest of 10 children, she blinked into the dancing light of a candle filled room. It could not have been known just then, that shortly this new baby girl would astonish and become a global operatic Prima Donna.

Georgina lived the childhood of any Newfoundland girl, eating wild berries and breathing music which sparkled the air as freely as new champagne. She soaked up the rich musical talents of her town, the thrilling soaring bounce of a well-played fiddle, and the rollicking power of a commanding accordion. Immersed in the rich culture of Newfoundland her talents quickly took flight.

Her parents were not able to provide her with instruments fast enough. Pianos, violins were all quickly absorbed and mastered, such was the ravenous joy of her musical connection. Like sunshine on that first warm day of spring, Georgina basked in the talents of those around her, taking in every nuance, every stylistic innovation, and she would soon repay the kindness.

By the age of 15, Georgina would be leading every musical performance in town, giving back the beauty she had received. She poured forth with a profusion of innovation, her voice seemingly growing more sensational by the hour. At 18, it was decided that she would attend the Toronto Lady’s College which had a liberal arts curriculum heavy in music. Her time in Toronto allowed her voice to strengthen but the music was of a technical nature, safe, and structured. Nothing like the freewheeling creativity of home, and it quickly became apparent that she would have to go elsewhere if she was to grow. It was Paris or bust.

In 1888 at the age of 21 she sailed to Paris to audition for a new life. The Marchesi school was the Juilliard of its day and only the best in the world were allowed to attend. Georgina’s audition was for Mathilde Marchesi herself, the renowned voice teacher. Georgina was offered a place on the spot.

A few years later, while performing at one of the Marchesi’s concerts, a passing impresario was stopped in his tracks by her voice. The Italian offered her a position in a Milan opera company then and there. Georgina Ann Stirling would take the summer off to debut as the Prima Donna at La Scala.

The writer Mary Shelley described La Scala as ‘the universal drawing room of Milan where every sort of trading transaction is carried on, so that brief and far between are the snatches of melody.’ This was an audience not easily impressed. The night Georgina sang at La Scala, the audience held their breath.

After touring Italy that summer Georgina returned to her training with Mathilde Marchesi, which she completed in 1892. That same year she made her debut at the Grand Opera in Paris. She didn’t take to the stage alone however, she took her home town with her. Her stage name was Mlle. Toulinguet in honour of Twillingate.

Mlle. Toulinguet was a global sensation, with a voice that could transport you to another world.  She quickly became the Prima Donna of multiple companies on both sides of the Atlantic. From 1892-1894 she toured France and Italy, 1894 and 1895 England, 1896 and 1897 the United States, all to sold out audiences. Newspapers described her voice as ‘faultless, with an effortless and seemingly unlimited range’.

She returned to Italy in 1898 and toured until 1901. During this time under an insatiable demand, tragedy struck. She damaged her voice. Her vocal chords were irreparably strained, she would never recover. At only 34 years of age, her career was over.

Nothing so luminous could last, but it must have seemed especially cruel to be robbed of something so extraordinary. Her connection to joy cut, Georgina’s life took a downward spiral into despondency, depression, and alcoholism. After a lengthy convalescence in England, Georgina returned to Twillingate where she lived out the remainder of her days.

No recordings of her voice have ever been found, although the phonograph with wax cylinders did exist in the late 1880s. There remains a chance, however slim, that a recording could be discovered, a lost treasure reclaimed, and Georgina Ann Stirling’s voice returned to the world.

(Re-imagining based on real people/events. Source: Twillingate Museum)

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