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Margaret Atwood's long-lost Canadian Opera Company work turns up in Vancouver with new composer

By John Terauds on February 28, 2013

Pauline Johnson
Pauline Johnson

City Opera Vancouver has announced that next year it will premiere Pauline, an opera with libretto by Margaret Atwood commissioned 15 years ago by Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company.

The Vancouver announcement says British Columbian composer Tobin Stokes has taken on the job of setting Atwood’s depiction of Pauline Johnson, who died in 1913.

Here is the west coast company’s description of the project:

Pauline tells the story of the extraordinary Canadian writer, poet and actress Pauline Johnson. She was an independent woman — and proto-Canadian — generations ahead of her time.

Shifting between a shattered present and a vivid past, Pauline examines her identities as poet and popular entertainer, white and Mohawk, self-reliant woman and desperate lover, imagined failure and creative immortal. Figures from her life, particularly her sister and manager, move in and out of her consciousness and, through those hopes and conflicts, portray Pauline Johnson as a great, tragic, and essential Canadian artist.

Pauline is set at Vancouver, in March 1913. Its world premiere will be given at the century old, and newly restored, York Theatre in May 2014. Pauline will star the great Judith Forst.

Then Canadian Opera Company general director Richard Bradshaw had never set a date for the premiere, and neither he nor the company later provided an official reason why the project disappeared from view. The unofficial story was that the original composer, Manitoban Randolph Peters, had been unable to finish the score.

Peters is currently working on a concert narrative for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and percussionist Evelyn Glennie based on Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia.

Atwood’s previous opera connection was a bit more arm’s length: Danish composer Poul Ruders and librettist Paul Bentley’s 2000 adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. The original Danish Royal Opera production was picked up by Bradshaw to open the Canadian Opera Company’s 2004-5 season. That was a full-scale effort. Pauline is going to be more of a chamber opera.

There remain a couple of other unexplained absences of new works from the Canadian Opera Company production schedule: Composer Alexina Louie and librettist David Henry Hwang’s 2002 grand opera, The Scarlet Princess, and Bradshaw’s final new-opera gesture, Donna, a contemporary, urban response to Don Giovanni commissioned for the 2011-12 season from Toronto composer James Rolfe and librettist Anna Chatterton.

As it stands now, the Canadian Opera Company has gone 14 years without presenting a Canadian opera on its mainstage. The last one was The Golden Ass in 1999, for which Peters set to music a libretto by Robertson Davies.

The last premiere of a new Canadian work by the Canadian Opera Company was Rolfe and Chatterton’s one-act Swoon, presented by the Ensemble Studio in 2007 at the Imperial Oil Theatre on Front St. The company no longer presents non-mainstage opera.

John Terauds

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