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Sister Barbara: The Sault's own singing nun

This edition of Remember This looks back on a career that included a place with the University of Toronto's opera department and the Canadian Opera Company
Sister Barbara Ianni. Sault Ste. Marie Public Library archive

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

The idea of singing nuns might conjure thoughts of church hymns or perhaps even Julie Andrews singing and running through the hills of Austria in the Sound of Music. You’re probably not thinking about opera divas. But Sault Ste. Marie’s Sister Barbara Ianni has managed to combine the two: religious devotion with operatic performances.

As a child, Barbara knew that she wanted to become either a singer or a nun  She didn’t see a path to do both, however, and in her teens, opted to join the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie.  

While she put her musical aspirations to the side - something to do in her spare time - her desire to pursue singing never left her. She transferred to a centre where she could take singing lessons, and eventually received permission to pursue a vocal career while remaining a nun.

Despite still being a nun, she no longer wore the habit. She spent much of her time reading and studying German to open up more performance opportunities, and visiting with other Sisters.

A dramatic soprano – a term which indicates a powerful voice that can be heard above an orchestra – Sister Barbara found a place with the University of Toronto’s opera department and the Canadian Opera Company, landing roles in a number of their performances.

Despite the success, she was not completely satisfied with her singing. In an interview with the Globe and Mail’s Lawrence O’Toole in 1976, she revealed that “there’s never a point of having arrived, no matter how much work you are putting into your singing.”

Still, over the course of the interview, she spoke of what a positive thing it was to be able to share her talents. She even related her singing back to her religious beliefs, speaking of the “little miracle” that happened on stage when all of her practicing paid off and she found herself lost in the moment.

In 1977, she performed in Sault Ste. Marie as part of the Algoma Fall Festival, appearing in a performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera “The Old Maid and the Thief”. A Sault Star reporter covering the event described a packed theatre at White Pines and much applause from the audience. The opera itself was described as a “short comic [skit] set to music” that resembled a silent film in its atmosphere. Sister Barbara played the role of Miss Pinkerton, friend to the ‘old maid’ referenced in the title; a review in the Globe and Mail described her performance as “wonderful.”

She made quite a stir, becoming known as the “singing nun.” Critics praised her as “spectacular in both vocal prowess and ability to convey a variety of conflicting emotions,” according to a Globe and Mail review from May 1979 of a performance of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.

Sister Barbara eventually moved back to Sault Ste. Marie, teaching and performing in the area.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more Remember This? columns here

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