Pauline tells the story of famed Canadian writer and poet Pauline Johnson. The company plans to present the chamber opera, starring mezzo-soprano Judith Forst, in May 2014.
“I have enormous faith in [Stokes’s] gift and imagination,” said artistic director Charles Barber.
Atwood, who wrote the libretto, first conceived of telling Johnson’s story through opera more than a decade ago. There have been two previous efforts to create Pauline, under different composers. But it has yet to be staged.
Johnson was born to a Mohawk chief and a Quaker Englishwoman in 1861 and would often perform her poetry dressed in two costumes, representing her dual identities. She travelled alone across Canada, the United States and Great Britain to give readings of her work — “generations before any woman would do such a thing,” according to Barber.
Atwood’s narrative centres on Johnson at the end of her life, as she died of breast cancer in Vancouver in 1913.
“She’s on morphine, so she’s slipping in and out of reality and that’s helping her remember these times and these people who she worked with and loved,” Stokes said on the phone from Paris, where he is vacationing after a residency in Sweden. “It’s a very beautiful libretto and story that Margaret Atwood has written.”
However, there will likely be some changes to the libretto, which Stokes and Atwood will work on together, as he writes the music.
“Once you start writing the music, you find things that could work better if it was done a certain way, or don’t work well, or I may have some questions of intent. That sort of thing,” he said.
When Stokes learned he won the commission, he ordered history books about Johnson from the museum in her former home on the Six Nations reserve in Ontario.
“Pauline was half-Mohawk and half of English descent, so she had this sort of unique heritage and that’s what she drew from to be a writer and performer,” he said. “Approaching that musically, there’s a number of different ways to do it. … I don’t think it will be anything that hits people over the head; it will be more subtle.”
The Canadian Opera Company announced the first commission of Pauline in 1999. While Atwood wrote the libretto, her collaborator — Winnipeg composer Randolph Peters — “was not keen on the subject,” the Toronto Star reported.
City Opera Vancouver announced plans for Pauline as a pared-down chamber opera in 2008 under composer Christos Hatzis.
For its first commission, the newborn company wanted to create an opera that would serve as a “signature vehicle” for Forst, a senior opera singer. But last fall, the company began its search for a new composer.
“We initially made an agreement with Christos. But when it came down to its particulars, we were unable to proceed further,” Barber said. “By mutual agreement, we withdrew that contract.”
City Opera Vancouver selected Stokes through a blind process, as one of three finalists narrowed from a pool of more than 40. Each finalist composed an aria based on Atwood’s libretto and Forst performed them for a jury.
“He speaks in tongues,” Barber said of Stokes’s composition style. “He has an ear for the individual nature and personality and silhouette of separate voices, in an otherwise unified opera.”
City Opera Vancouver has a $300,000 budget for Pauline, he said.
This will be Stokes’s fifth opera and his second with City Opera Vancouver.
Last year, the company staged Stokes’s Fallujah, inspired by the experience of former U.S. Marine Christian Ellis.
Pauline is Atwood’s first credit as a librettist. However, the Danish Opera Society staged her novel The Handmaid’s Tale as an opera.
“I think we have a chance of producing a very fine piece that tells a very important story,” Barber said.
Auditions are planned for March in Vancouver, with the first workshops next September.
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