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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2 Responses to Margaret Atwood’s long-lost Canadian Opera Company work turns up in Vancouver with new composer

  1. Linda Rogers says:

    Interesting to wonder what has changed in Canadian arts policy that this neglect of Canadian opera development has been possible.

    When I arrived on the scene as interim General Director of Opera Ontario in 2001, one of the several serious crises the company was facing , was serious funding cuts from both provincial and national arts councils citing lack of Canadian content and lack of second stage productions for the development of new opera talent in all fields. I scrambled successfully to put both in place through a co-production with NUMUS that year (groundwork had been laid but abandoned so I merely found some funding and got it back on track) and in doing that as well as presenting some detailed ongoing new plans restored the funding cuts that would have sunk the company.

    At that time, there were serious financial repercussions to failing to support Canadian opera development. Has this changed?

  2. I can’t speak to the circumstances of any other company, but here at City Opera Vancouver we recognize the affordable advantages of small forms. There is in chamber opera a capacity for intimate discourse that is quite wonderful — and practical.

    This is no disrespect to ‘grand’ opera and its traditions. In my own career I have conducted much of that work, and apprenticed to both Sir Charles Mackerras and Carlos Kleiber. Those masters plowed rich fields.

    The cutbacks described are a national plague. In an era of permanent recession, they are not likely to be reversed soon.

    Thus, our own choice to pursue chamber opera. Across North America, audiences are building rapidly for such enterprise. It is some part of the future of a great form, and it is what we have built for PAULINE. I hope you will join us in May 2014, and hear the great story Margaret has told, and that Tobin is animating.

    If you come in from Toronto, we will provide supertitles at no additional charge — West Coast accents being what they are and all…