City Opera to bring life of poet Pauline Johnson to the stage

Chamber opera by author Margaret Atwood and composer Tobin Stokes about poet Pauline Johnson will premiere in May 2014.

New opera about poet Pauline Johnson by Margaret Atwood and Tobin Stokes
Commissioned by City Opera Vancouver to premiere in May 2014, 'Pauline' is written by Margaret Atwood and composed by Tobin Stokes.

This spring will mark CanLit icon Margaret Atwood’s first foray into opera when City Opera Vancouver presents Pauline at the newly restored York Theatre. Based on renowned poet Pauline Johnson, Atwood conceived and wrote the libretto for the chamber opera, with Canadian composer Tobin Stokes creating the score. City Opera commissioned the work and has put Norman Armour at the helm as director.

Pauline is set in 1913 Vancouver, during the final week of Johnson’s life. Eight singers will take on 14 different roles and there will be no chorus. Atwood’s artistic statement says, “The main arias use Pauline’s own words, from her poems”.

“Encompassing two cultures, Pauline Johnson blurred poetry, prose, and performance.” Stokes explains in his artistic statement. “I know it will fit beautifully in a chamber opera setting.”

Margaret Atwood and Tobin Stokes work on chamber opera 'Pauline'
Margaret Atwood and Tobin Stokes during 'Pauline' workshop in October 2013. Photo credit: City Opera Vancouver.

Born in 1861 to a Mohawk chief and a Quaker Englishwoman in Ontario, Pauline Johnson would later become an actress and celebrated poet. During her 17-year stage career, she emphasized both sides of her heritage in costume and verse. She travelled the world, touring theatres in Canada, USA, and Great Britain. Although celebrated at the time as a phenomenal “poetess” and performer, some of her fame came with a colonial fascination with the “exotic native”, and elicited criticisms for similar reasons. Fortunately, Johnson’s work has experienced a renewal in appreciation in the past decades.

After her retirement from the stage, she moved to Vancouver in 1909 where she continued writing, although her health was failing. Her writing during these years included a series in the Daily Province about Squamish Chief Joseph Capilano, whom she had met in London while on tour. As her heath deteriorated, Capilano and friends helped Johnson compile a book, Legends of Vancouver, with original prose as well as retellings of Capilano’s stories. In one piece, Johnson coined the name for the “Lost Lagoon” in Stanley Park after observing how it seemed to disappear during low tide. (Lost Lagoon has since been converted into a permanent fresh-water installment but retains the name). Dying of breast cancer, Johnson was treated with morphine and rudimentary surgical procedures.

The opera takes place during the last weeks of Pauline Johnson’s life, shifting between the past and present, and considering her multiple identities. Johnson was privately an insecure person, suffering self-doubt and loyalty concerns regarding her dual heritage. The role of Pauline will be sung by dramatic mezzo Rose-Ellen Nichols. Unfortunately, upon her death, Pauline’s sister Eva, whose part will be sung by soprano Sarah Vardy, destroyed much of Pauline’s correspondence, which could have illuminated her true thoughts. The opera considers what these letters may have revealed.

“The opera weaves Pauline’s conflict with her sister in and out of her interactions with the phantom of her lover, as cancer and morphine contribute to the mix,” says Atwood’s artistic statement.

Director Norman Armour and librettoist Margaret Atwood
Norman Armour (director) and Margaret Atwood (librettist) during 'Pauline' workshop in October 2013. Photo credit: City Opera Vancouver.

Johnson died on March 7, 1913 at the Bute Street Hospital. Her funeral was held on her birthday (March 10, 1913, she would have been 52), which was declared a civic holiday. As her casket was walked from the hospital to Christ Church Cathedral, thousands of residents stood witness and mourned her death. Her ashes were later buried near Siwash Rock in Stanley Park and a public memorial was erected in 1922 to mark the spot.

City Opera held three workshops for Pauline this past autumn. Other cast members include tenor lead Ken Lavigne who will take four roles, bass John Minágro (Grandfather Smoke), mezzo Cathleen Gingrich (mother, nurse), baritone Edward Moran (father, minister, Mr Smiley) and sopranos Diane Speirs and Eleonora Higginson (The Two Ladies).

Pauline will have only five performances from May 23-31, 2014 at the York Theatre on Commercial Drive. City Opera President Nora Kelly expects the world premiere run will sell out. “There is tremendous interest already,” Kelly stated in their January newsletter. If early sales are good, they may add a sixth performance. Tickets go on sale through The Cultch on January 15, 2014.

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