If you’re a small, Vancouver-based chamber opera company looking for a new project, how do you go about convincing one of the country’s most celebrated authors to pen a libretto for you? Simple. You just pick up the phone and ask. At least, that’s what City Opera Vancouver’s artistic director, Charles Barber, would have us believe.
“I have been asked many, many times, ‘Who the hell are you, and how the hell did you guys get Margaret Atwood?’ ” he jovially recalls in a phone conversation with the Straight. “My reply is the joking truth of it: the hard part was getting her number. Thereafter she has been a breeze and a delight and a joy to work with.”
Barber got in touch with Atwood six years ago, when he was looking to commission a new opera. Turns out, the celebrated author had been sitting on a libretto for years, based on the final days of the 19th-century writer and performer Pauline Johnson.
Johnson, who is perhaps best known as the writer of the poem “The Song My Paddle Sings”, was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and a Quaker Englishwoman. Her dual identity was reflected in her performances, in which she appeared first in a buckskin dress, reciting poems such as “A Cry From an Indian Wife”. During intermission, she would change attire, and surprise the audience by transforming into a modern Victorian lady for the remainder of the show. Johnson settled in Vancouver in 1909, and suffered a painful death from breast cancer four years later, three days shy of her 52nd birthday.
“She went all over the country, and indeed many places in the world, where neither Canadians nor women had gone before. She was pretty adventurous,” observes Atwood, on the line from her Toronto office. “I’ve known about her since 1948, because she was in the school reader. And then somewhere along the way she got dropped out of the school reader.…In 1982, I was editing The [New] Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, and I put her back in.”
Atwood’s first stab at a libretto based on Johnson’s life goes back to the mid 1990s, when she was approached by Richard Bradshaw, who was then general director of the Canadian Opera Company. “I proposed this, and Richard really liked it and we did the whole hoo-hah,” recounts Atwood. “Then he engaged a composer who really didn’t like the project.” Another draft of the libretto also failed to impress, and when Bradshaw died in 2007, the project was shelved entirely—until Barber came calling.
“I will go quite far around the block for Charles, because he works for nothing,” remarks Atwood, explaining why she decided to collaborate with a little-known organization based on the other side of the country. “He’s completely dedicated to making operas. You rarely encounter anybody quite like that.”
Barber is also, given what it has taken to bring the work to the stage, indefatigable. The newly refurbished York Theatre will host the world premiere of Pauline on May 23, but getting it there has been a series of fits and starts. You might even call it the opera that almost never was.
“It’s taken about 107 years—or so it feels like,” quips Barber. Some may recall that, back in 2008, City Opera announced that the work would premiere in 2010, as a vehicle for famed mezzo-soprano Judith Forst, with music by Christos Hatzis. Today, Forst is no longer attached to the project, Hatzis has been replaced by Victoria-based composer Tobin Stokes—and the year is 2014. According to Barber, the company was unable to come to terms with Hatzis, who had originally been asked to write the music for what had been envisioned as a signature work for Forst.
When a lucrative commission from the U.S.–based Annenberg Foundation came along, to create an opera about the Iraq War (Fallujah will premiere in the U.S. in the coming year), the company put Pauline on hold. By the time City Opera was ready to return to it, Forst had decided she was no longer able to take part.
“Judy was going to create the role of Pauline Johnson herself,” notes Barber. “But by the time we came back to it she said she just wasn’t going to be able to do it.” Instead, recent UBC master’s graduate and mezzo-soprano Rose-Ellen Nichols has been cast in the lead role. Herself Coast Salish from Pender Harbour, Nichols says she has found a particular affinity for Johnson.
“I live in this world that she lived in, you know?” relates the Vancouver-based Nichols, by phone. “I feel like I know my roots.…I do a lot of the things that a lot of First Nations people don’t do anymore because I grew up with a family that fished and hunted. I helped skin the deer and helped chop up the fish and gut them and stuff most of my life. So I just grew up with that.”
Before being cast in the opera, Nichols says, she was quite unfamiliar with Johnson’s legacy. “We don’t learn as much of her poetry in school nowadays as they did in years previous,” she observes. “I know a lot of people, like a generation or so before me, that had ‘The Song My Paddle Sings’ as one of their poetry pieces that they always learned, but I don’t even remember having that in school.”
The opera, she hopes, will bring more people to Johnson’s poetry, which, she says, has been interwoven into Atwood’s libretto. “She [Atwood] is using both Pauline Johnson’s words and her own words, and the way they have come together, it’s seamless,” she remarks. “You don’t even know where one’s work begins and one’s work ends. It’s just amazing.…People might not even realize it. They’ll just think, ‘Oh, well, that’s a beautiful piece of music there.’”
For his part, Stokes says working with Atwood in developing the opera has been a truly collaborative process. “The only daunting thing was the first time I ever emailed her,” he confesses, on the line from Fort Worth, Texas, where he is attending the Fort Worth Opera Festival. “I was checking over my grammar and stuff like that. But once we made contact, we’re just two artists on the same goal, trying to tell the best story we can. She’s been very gracious about offering more material, or she’s open to cuts. Whatever it takes, she’s just totally open-minded and honest about it.”
Atwood insists that her role is merely to create the framework. “The librettist is just a coat hanger,” she explains. “Other people hang the costume on it and make it come to life. You’re giving them a skeleton. It’s nice if it’s a good skeleton—but if it’s only a skeleton there’s nothing there. It’s the music, it’s the performance, it’s the singing, it’s putting it all together. It’s the direction. And all of that is done by other people.”
One of those other people is director Norman Armour, who is making his first foray into opera with the work. With the amount of attention being drawn to the project by the Atwood name, Armour admits to feeling a bit of heat. “I try not to think about it,” he confesses, on the line from Buenos Aires, where was on sabbatical for two months. “I’m very proud to be a part of it and I feel very good about some of the things I’ve drawn to the project.…If that helps the company to live up to the hope for it, then I’ll feel good about that.”
Atwood expresses a similar sentiment. “All of this is lots of fun and I think they’re going to put on a great show, but it’s not all my doing,” she insists. As for the fact that it’s being billed as an Atwood opera: “That gets the interviews, doesn’t it?” she quips. “It gets it in the paper.
“I mean, the other thing you know you’re doing is giving people a chance to do their stuff. Quite frankly, it’s not my chance. I made some chances for them, and that’s what you like to do when you’re my age,” she continues. “Giving young singers a chance to do their singing, giving designers a chance to do their designing, giving composers a chance to compose.” She adds, with her trademark wry chuckle: “As they say in the old Mickey Rooney movies: ‘Let’s put on a show!’ ”
City Opera Vancouver’s Pauline is at the York Theatre on May 23, 25, 27, 29, and 31.