Gazette

Nightingale of the North


(Nov. 26, 1998, Gazette)

By Bert Riggs

Georgina Ann Stirling was born in Twillingate, Nfld., on April 3, 1866, the youngest of 10 children born to Ann Peyton and William Stirling. Ann Peyton was a grand-daughter of John Peyton (1747-1827), who had established a fish business at Exploits, just west of Twillingate, prior to 1800, and brought his son John Junior (Ann's father) from England in 1812 to join the business. William Stirling, originally from Harbour Grace, was a medical doctor, who moved to Twillingate to practise in 1843.

Georgina and her sisters were educated at Twillingate. Most also received musical training from an early age, and their father, recognizing the need for a well-rounded education, and his daughters natural musical talents, acquired two pianos, a violin and a flute for their use. By the time she was 15, Georgie was playing the organ at church services and playing and singing at local concerts.

Ann Peyton died on August 9, 1882, when Georgina Stirling was only 16. The following year, her father arranged for her to attend the Toronto Ladies' College, where she spent several years studying liberal arts, including music. She returned to Twillingate around 1885, where she continued to sing and play at religious and social gatherings and to be involved in community work.

William Stirling was both a believer and promoter of his daughters' talents. In the fall of 1888 he arranged for her to travel to Paris to receive voice training. An audition with renowned voice teacher, Mathilde Marchesi, resulted in an invitation to attend Marchesi's school in Paris.

In 1890, while performing at one of Marchesi's concerts, Stirling's voice caught the attention of an Italian impresario, who invited her to join a Milan opera company. It has been claimed that she made her debut at Milan's La Scala opera house. She spent the next year with that company before returning to Paris and more study with Marchesi.

In the summer of 1892 Stirling returned to Twillingate for the first time in four years. There she was welcomed and honoured for her accomplishments, many of which had been reported in the local newspaper The Twillingate Sun. While there she sang at flower services at St. Peter's and St. Andrew's Church of England churches.

In October Stirling left Twillingate for Europe. On a short stop-over in St. John's she sang several numbers, including Ave Maria, at a divine service held at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, with Bishop Power in attendance. Her singing received laudatory reviews in the local papers.

The 1892-1893 season was to be Stirling's last with Marchesi. She made her Paris grand opera debut in 1893 and also made a return visit to St. John's where she performed at the Methodist College Hall. The following year she spent performing in England. She also adopted the stage Marie Toulinguet at this time.

The next five years were to be busy ones for Georgina Stirling. After spending the 1894-1895 season touring England, she visited Twillingate, followed by several concerts at St. John's on her way back to Europe in the fall of 1895.

In 1896 Stirling accepted an invitation from the impresario Colonel J. Henry Mapleson to join his New Imperial Opera Company based in New York. In St. John's, on her way to New York, she participated in the dedication service for the newly constructed Gower Street Methodist Church.

Stirling's debut with the New Imperial Opera Company was a resounding success, with laudatory reviews in New York, Philadelphia and Boston newspapers. Unfortunately, the company ran into financial difficulties and was forced to close mid-season, leaving it performers stranded. Stirling was able to obtain a number of singing engagements in eastern USA cities during the winter of 1896-1897.

Arriving in St. John's in late June 1897, with her friend, the Dublin-born singer Marie du Bedat, Stirling found the city in the midst of celebrating the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria's ascension of the British throne. Both singers agreed to perform at various special events and concerts, Stirling singing the National Anthem at the laying of the cornerstone for Cabot Tower, as the 400th anniversary of John Cabot's arrival in Newfoundland was also being celebrated. Stirling and du Bedat spent the remainder of the summer in Twillingate.

On October 18, 1897, Georgine Stirling made her debut with the Scalchi Operatic Company, under the direction of Sophia Scalchi, a former member of Mapleson's troop. The company toured throughout the United States, from the Carolinas to Arkansas to Colorado, to wide acclaim, especially Stirling who received very complimentary reviews: "Mlle. Toulinguet undoubtedly achieved the triumph of the evening." (Arkansas Gazette); Mlle. Toulinguet sings faultlessly and without the least effort. Her high notes are as clear as a bell and her range seems unlimited." (Charleston News). The tour was a tremendous success, and resulted in a series of engagements for Stirling in Italy the following year.

Stirling was in Italy for most of the years 1898 to 1901. During this time she damaged to her voice; evidence points to a straining of the vocal chords. It prevented her from singing, which brought on despondency and depression. A lengthy period of rest was required, part of which was spent in London with her sisters, Janet and Lucy. When she did return to the stage, it was as a concert artist, not an opera singer: the damage to her voice had been that great. She performed rarely, which tended to worsen her psychological state and may have caused her to seek solace from alcohol.

After spending the summer and fall of 1904 in St. John's and Twillingate, Stirling returned to England, where she eventually joined the Duxhurst Farm Colony for Women and Children in Surrey. Founded by Lady Somerset in 1895, this quiet country estate offered professional assistance and security to woman recovering from alcohol abuse. It would appear that she spent various periods there over the following two decades, interspersed with living with Susan and Janet.

Susan Stirling Temple died in 1925 and Janet Stirling in 1928. No longer able to depend on them for emotional or financial support, Georgina Stirling was forced to return to Twillingate. She quickly settled in and was accepted by the residents of the town. She helped to organize and sang at concerts sponsored by the Hustler's Club to raise money for the Twillingate hospital. And she spent time gardening, a hobby she had acquired at Duxhurst Farm. Georgina Stirling died at Twillingate on April 23, 1935.

In 1989 the Centre for Newfoundland Studies acquired a small bundle of letters written to Dr. William Stirling. These included several invoices for Georgina's singing lessons in Toronto. Earlier this year, Amy Peyton of Gander, who has written a biography of Georgina Stirling, Nightingale of the North (1983), presented the archives with a number of documents related to Stirling and members of her family. Included were several letters between the Stirling sisters, clippings of Georgina's performances, and a printed account of her audition and acceptance by Marchesi, and subsequent performances. They provide an interesting and exciting glimpse of Newfoundland's first opera singer.

Bert Riggs is the archivist for the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, located on level one of the Queen Elizabeth II Library.