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Tonia Evans Cianciulli

Tonia Evans Cianciulli
It’s easy to dismiss coincidences as just that — seemingly random events that might be related but probably aren’t. Occasionally though, things unfold with such staggering synchronicity that the universe is clearly sending a message.
Tonia Evans Cianciulli knows all about that. A cascading series of events came together to irrevocably link the dazzling and acclaimed lyric soprano with renowned 19th century Newfoundland-born opera star Georgina Stirling, who performed under the stage name Marie Toulinquet. The pair’s cosmic union has resulted in the gorgeous, spare, and undeniably haunting pop/classical crossover new single, “Marie,” now available for digital download.
It has also given Cianciulli a roadmap to her future while validating the idea that all music is worthwhile if approached with passion.
Written by late Newfoundland folk hero Ron Hynes about Stirling, “Marie” was serendipitously discovered by Cianciulli as she was preparing to tour Stirling’s songbook across Newfoundland in 2017. That idea came from a soul-searching conversation with a cousin who encouraged Cianciulli, also Newfoundland-born, to explore her ancestral roots.
As it happened, Cianciulli’s grandparents had given her a biography of Stirling (Nightingale of the North by Amy Louise Peyton) back in 1993, which she promptly shelved. “I was all about Maria Callas at that point,” she laughs. “I judged that book by its old-fashioned cover and just set it aside.”
When Cianciulli finally cracked the spine years later after talking with her cousin, she discovered to her astonishment that Stirling's selections of sacred solos and songs performed in concert settings all lined up with ones Cianciulli had been drawn to perform in concerts throughout her career thus far. “Yes, we are both sopranos,” she says, “but even within the category of soprano there are different fachs,’” or vocal classifications of singers.
“After reading Nightingale of the North, I started putting together the musical program for a Newfoundland tour, adding historical footnotes and stories, some borrowed from my family,” Cianciulli explains. “Then I cold-called a bunch of churches across the province fully expecting to be turned down. I wasn’t. The concerts were met with such enthusiasm.
“When I was organizing the first concert for St. John’s, I met photographer/musician Chris LeDrew who happened to be friends with Ron Hynes and had toured with him. He asked if I’d heard the song ‘Marie,’” a song lifted from Hynes’s final album, 2016’s Later That Same Life, and representing a clear line-through between Newfoundland’s musical past and present.
Says Cianciulli, “I hadn’t heard that song. I was never very familiar with the music of Ron Hynes. Again, what are the chances?”
Pretty good, evidently. Cianciulli and pianist Evan Smith performed “Marie” in Stirling’s hometown of Twillingate and beyond in 2017 to great fanfare — even Hynes’s manager was flattened — while capturing video footage of Cianciulli visiting the diva’s gravesite and other landmarks. The connection also propelled Cianciulli into another medium: she is now co-authoring a new book about Stirling with… wait for it… her grandfather, veteran Newfoundland author Calvin Evans who gave Cianciulli Nightingale of the North in the first place. A full-length tribute album of sacred solos and songs based on Stirling is also currently in the works.
“Marie” could not have come along at a better time in Cianciulli’s career, perfectly capturing as it does the Toronto- and Miami-based singer’s varying musical interests and abilities which, to outsiders, may seem contradictory. “I am an opera singer,” she says. “But I don’t pigeonhole myself because my greater goal is to make people access their buried emotions. As (self-help author) Wayne Dyer says, ‘Don’t die with your music still inside you.’”
Which helps explain how Cianciulli, when not touring the world and home-schooling her two children, also developed as a songwriter and lyricist, as comfortable wrangling pop songs and EDM tracks as enchanting her audience with the powerful vocal lines of operatic arias. “I do take my craft of opera very seriously and I respect the art form,” Cianciulli says. “But there are other forms of music living inside me that need to see the light of day. I gave myself permission to explore those in hopes that others could relate.”
Cianciulli’s successes in the classical world — performing for the Miami Ball in South Beach, Toronto Police Chief’s Gala, OMEY Projects Arts Festival in Algarve, Portugal plus key roles in operas The Magic Flute, Così fan tutte, and Pirates of Penzance among many other marquee performances — are phenomenal. And Cianciulli, who also performs in Italian, German, French, Russian, Czech, and Latin, is in strong demand. Her 2018 itinerary already includes high-profile appearances in Canada and Europe plus a return to Twillingate and St. John’s to perform a revised program of her Nightingale concert.
Altruism also inspires her best work. Cianciulli supports Operation Smile Canada, which surgically corrects cleft lip and palate in children, notably in the developing world.
“My daughter Sophia was born with a cleft lip so this cause is very near to our hearts,” she says, adding that both Sophia, 11, and son Anthony, 10, frequently perform with her as they did during a 2017 Christmas gala fundraiser for Operation Smile Canada. Cianciulli also founded Wish Arts, a non-profit in support of the emotional and psychological development of artists of all genres.
All very impressive. Yet what really distinguishes Cianciulli, apart from a gravity-defying voice of such warmth, expression, and majesty it’s amazing she hasn’t patented goose-bumps, is her ability to invest any song with authentic emotion no matter the genre or subject matter. Witness her performance on the synth-driven dancefloor corker “Red Carpet.” That previously released single (available on iTunes) provides a convenient but no less thrilling counterpoint to her vertiginous performance of, say, Puccini's La bohème available to hear at her website (https://www.wisharts.ca/).
Drill down, and the secret to Cianciulli’s remarkable musical versatility lies in her past; specifically, with her uncle Brian Evans who died in 1992 but not before encouraging his niece, just 18 when he passed, to cultivate her exquisite voice.
“My uncle was so influential,” Cianciulli confirms. “He was a huge opera fan. I knew I could trust his intuition based on his passionate involvement with the Canadian Opera Company. I think the first thing I ever sang for him was Bette Midler’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’ And he said to me ‘Don’t waste your time on that music. You have a classical voice. Develop it.’
“At first, I resisted. But then I fell in love with opera. And I was on a mission to get other people to love it, too. That has remained a real motivator for me. I don’t expect people to necessarily go to the opera all the time. But the experience of the music is extraordinary. And sometimes combining opera with other sorts of music is a good way of easing people into it and making it seem less intimidating.”
She continues: “When he was on his deathbed Brian used to say to me, ‘Tonia, sing this piece. You won’t experience true passion in your voice until you experience tragedy but for now, try and imagine being in the headspace of this character.’ And then he died and left me with a tragedy in my life. Now every time I sing, I access that pain. And I love making people cry,” she bursts out laughing. “It makes me feel like I am doing my job.
“In the end though, when it comes to music, whether it’s opera or pop or a combination of both, we must do what speaks to us and feeds our soul,” Cianciulli says. “That’s what I hope to do with music.”
Somewhere in the netherworld, Georgina Stirling is smiling and sagely nodding her head.
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