Music Row featuring Tonia Cianciulli

By Jamie White

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Tonia Cianciulli, multifaceted concert artist and award-winning author who lives in Toronto, captivates her audiences with every note she sings and every word she writes. Born in St. John’s Newfoundland, Cianciulli moved away when she was a few years old, but returns to the province frequently, always carrying a piece of Newfoundland with her wherever she went.

“I think that Newfoundlanders in general are such amazing storytellers and are so close knit that the stories, wherever you live, the stories continue,” said Cianciulli. “You grow up with that as part of your fabric, so growing up, hearing these stories, they are part of you.”

Cianciulli weaves a tale brimming with conviction, emotion and passion no matter the genre she chooses or the subject matter she wishes to convey.

“As an artist, I’ve never been one to write about love in the sense of, ‘this guy broke my heart,’ or anything like that. It’s always that I want to put the stories of my past and my family’s past down in poetry first and then, somehow, download from the universe or God the melody that will best suit those words. So even though I didn’t get the chance to physically grow up in Newfoundland, like with all Newfoundlanders, no matter where you live, home is always Newfoundland. That’s obviously been such a huge part of my life and my heart and has absolutely had a huge impact on my art and my music.”

Georgina Sterling, the Newfoundland opera singer, has always been a muse of sorts for Cianciulli.

“I can’t say enough good things about that woman. To have been born and raised in an outport of Newfoundland and to set sail on a ship and go off to Europe to train and perform, she was a true trailblazer and just had such huge dreams for herself, stopping at nothing to achieve them,” said Cianciulli. “Fortunately she had an amazing, supportive family who supported that dream for her and any of the articles I came across on her while researching for my book, they all say the same things: what a beautiful, humble woman she was, so loving and always giving back, performing for free. Even to the day she died she was growing roses in her garden in Twillingate and bringing them to people in the hospital and mentoring and tutoring young artists in the area. She’s definitely my muse.”

Cianciulli knew exactly what she wanted to do from a young age. She wanted to be a singer and a mom.

“I started singing at a young age in church and school plays and, around the age of about 14 or so, I sang Bette Midler’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’ for my mom’s brother, my Uncle Brian, and he said, ‘oh no, you have a voice that is meant for classical music and you need to find a classical voice teacher and start learning these Latin and Italian classical songs.’”

At first, the thought of singing classical music was intimidating.

“I wanted nothing to do with it, but he really nurtured that love of classical and opera in me and I fell in love with it,” said Cianciulli. “I am a soprano and for many years I sang strictly classical and opera, and I felt like there was more creativity in me in terms of exploring other genres of music and writing my own music, and I felt I had to bust out of the classical straitjacket and give myself permission to try other genres of music.”

One particular Newfoundland musician inspired Cianciulli as she branched out in her musical career.

“I had two companion albums come out with the Heart’s Obsession book based on Georgina’s life, and one of those was mainly classical and opera, and almost all of the songs on that album are pieces that she performed for her public when she was touring and performing,” said Cianciulli. “The other album at the same time was a Ron Hynes cover album and the significance there was he wrote the song ‘Marie’ about Marie Toulingue, about Georgina Sterling. Marie Toulingue was her stage name and that piece was not even on YouTube. By the time someone told me about it he had passed away shortly after recording that last album and ‘Marie’ was on that album. I was lucky enough to get in touch with Ron’s manager at the time and he sent me the track and I just fell in love with it and went further down the Ron Hynes rabbit hole and a whole new world exploded for me.”

Cianciulli believes each genre of music she sings has a completely different feel and experience for those listening.

“I really feel that I’ve become more of an intimate singer. It’s so contrasting from the opera where it’s blasted as loud as you can to where I want to bring you in close to this whispery sound in the microphone and speak directly to your heart,” said Cianciulli. “For many people, when they hear opera, they go, ‘Oh my God. It’s so inspiring and it’s so moving. Those high notes bring me to tears,’ but I feel this style of music is more meditative and healing. It wraps your heart up.”

Her new single, ‘Churchyard Roses,’ tells the story of her grandparents, Chesley and Elsie Dyke, who lost their four-year-old son, Edward, who drowned.

“I wanted to write that song as a dedication to my Dad’s side of the family, and knowing he was writing the book (Skipper Ches: As Tough as It Gets), it just seemed fitting. As it turns out, he was able to include the lyrics in his book that was recently released by Flanker Press, so it seems like such a beautiful project to have taken part in with my Dad and it happened so effortlessly and seamlessly.”

With a father and grandfather who are both published authors it was a natural progression for Cianciulli to break into the field also. The Heart's Obsession, an intimate biography of Georgina Sterling, was published by Flanker Press in 2019 and has received awards and accolades for Cianciulli’s beautiful representation of Georgina Sterling, and herself.

“The Hearts Obsession won a couple of awards, and that was really thrilling because that was another journey I began with my grandfather who has written numerous books with Breakwater, and we both became obsessed with Georgina’s story,” said Cianciulli. “We were both in the Queen Elizabeth Library holding handwritten letters she sent home to her family from Italy, and I’m sitting in this library and holding this letter, just in disbelief and my grandfather said, ‘We should write a book on her!’”

The pandemic gave Cianciulli time to work on her music.

“A couple of years ago, during the pandemic, I wrote a Christmas song called, ‘Christmastime this year in Newfoundland,’ and it was so heartbreaking because I couldn’t get back home for a couple of years. I kept trying and then they would lock down again or we would get locked down, whatever obstacles came in the way. So that was a dedication to Newfoundland, but I’m really proud of that song.”

Throughout her career, Cianciulli sang with numerous prestigious orchestras such as Casa Loma Symphony in Toronto and the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, but it is her dream to one day sing with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra.

She is currently working on her master's in counseling psychology and she is the founder of Wish Arts, where she does artist spotlight interviews on other Canadian artists, musicians, dancers, and authors to inspire others.

“I do one-on-one coaching with artists and I've hosted workshops and courses on the behind-the-scenes aspects of being an artist, how to set goals, how to cope with impostor syndrome and negative inner-chatter, so we can be the best version of ourselves."

The future looks especially bright.

“Over the next year I have this new album I’m going to release. A couple more are on Newfoundland topics and others about coping with things like depression, anxiety, impostor syndrome, growing and healing, that kind of thing, and in June I’ll be in Twillingate because the principal of the high school asked if I would come and do a full concert for the school on Georgina Sterling and wants me to start a music competition for the grade 7 to 10 students to help nurture the musical talent in the area. I can’t think of a better place to start it than there in Twillingate because of Georgina.”

Jaymie White, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wreckhouse Weekly News