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Margaret Atwood’s "Pauline" triumphs in Vancouver despite power outage

PAULINE Rose-Ellen Nichols & Adam Fisher MichelleDohertyPhotography
Margaret Atwood, in her libretto for this new Canadian opera, conveys the darkest hours of the soul.

Opera lovers know that tragedy and comedy are deeply entwined, but nobody could ever have envisioned such a double-braided opening night for City Opera Vancouver’s “Pauline”­—a tragedy that could only be played upon the stage once comedy had had its way in the street.

The comedy

When a devastating power outage plunges 400 east-side houses and one opera house into total darkness, the city’s bejewelled glitterati are forced into the streets while heroic BC Hydro workers declare, “The show must go on!”

The Cast:

  • Brave BC Hydro line technicians
  • Valiant ushers and front-of-house staff
  • Heroic gala event volunteers
  • And various street people including The Honourable Mayor Gregor Robertson, City Councillors Andrea Reimer and Heather Deal, BC Arts Council Program Officer Julie Poskitt, SFU Gallery Director Bill Jeffries, Vancouver Symphony Maestro Bramwell Tovey, Music on Main Impresario David Pay, Squamish Elder Sam George, Mohawk Poet Laureate Janet Marie Rogers, and world-renowned Author Margaret Atwood.

That’s right – Margaret (freaking) Atwood was in town.

BC Hydro at the opera

New opera Vancouver style! - or - It's all singing and dancing until somebody needs a generator. Audience endured comedy on the street (including playful signage) to get at the tragedy indoors. Photo: Jason Hall & Sharon Kravitz

As if to prove artistic director Charles Barber’s prophecy (in the programme notes) “Creating new opera is a frightening business”, on went the show eventually but after much delay. City Opera Vancouver president Nora Kelly, in her welcoming speech, discharged a sigh of relief so absolute, the audience spontaneously cheered. The much-awaited gala opening night of Margaret Atwood and Tobin Stokes’s new opera “Pauline” was finally underway.

The tragedy

“Pauline” is a uniquely Canadian story and for us in Vancouver, a local one (hence the profusion of dignitaries who would blink patiently into the sunset on Commercial Drive for one and a half hours). In the early 20th century, Pauline Johnson, the daughter of a Mohawk Chief and an English lady, was celebrated across the land as a poet and stage performer. Her performances thrilled audiences because she cleverly blended Native tradition (real and made up) with British-oriented modernism in a way that hinted at a uniquely Canadian identity. In an age when ladies on the stage were thought improper, Pauline Johnson was an iconoclast.

Pauline mesmerizes the audience

Pauline (Rose-Ellen Nichols) mesmerized her audiences. Photo: Michelle Doherty 

“Pauline” the opera unfolds in a 1913 Vancouver parlour in the final week of her life. After a long life beset with troubles, she’s dying of cancer and her sister has arrived by train to care for her and prey on Pauline’s worst fears. Before Pauline can rest in peace, she must face her past and let it go.

Dual identity

Rose-Ellen Nichols, a real-life Coast Salish First Nation member, is a sombre and dignified Pauline. On opening night, her singing radiated the spirit of Pauline by casting long shadows of despair shot suddenly with shards of virtuosity (credit also due here to Stokes’ masterful vocal writing).


Sarah Vardy (Eva Johnson) and Adam Fisher (various male leads), and Rose-Ellen Nichols (Pauline Johnson) on Granville Island to promote "Pauline". Photo: Michelle Doherty 

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