City Opera Vancouver gives new life to the voice of Pauline Johnson
by Hannah Bellamy
Pauline Johnson was a writer who has often been left out of the canon, but as a performer and vocal First Nations woman, she had an exceptional career for her time. Her work returns to the stage in City Opera Vancouver’s Pauline, a chamber opera written by Margaret Atwood and composed by Tobin Stokes.
Pauline is set in the last weeks of the writer’s life — she is dying of breast cancer. As she is treated with morphine and obscene early 20th century surgeries, the show moves in and out of her consciousness to examine her life through her dual identities as a poet and popular entertainer, white and Mohawk, and lover and independent woman.
Born in 1861, on Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, to a named Mohawk chief and an English mother, Pauline took her original, popular costumed performances across Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, at a time when women rarely travelled and performed on their own. Eventually, she retired from performance to the West End in Vancouver, where she continued to write and worked with Chief Joe Capilano of the Squamish Nation to translate and publish Legends of Vancouver, a collection of Coast Salish legends.
The Peak sat down with mezzo-soprano Rose-Ellen Nichols of the Coast Salish First Nation who plays the role of Pauline.
The Peak: How did you get involved with Pauline?
Rose-Ellen Nichols: City Opera Vancouver had a call for auditions for this new production and I went in. There are hundreds and hundreds of people who are auditioning for the same thing you are, and you hope you can get the chance to do the role. There was something about me they really liked.
P: Margaret Atwood had written a libretto about Pauline Johnson in the 90s and then put it in a drawer because she couldn’t get it produced.
Nichols: City Opera has been trying to get this going for about six years, and they wanted to get Margaret Atwood in on it. [Artistic director] Charles Barber says that the hardest part was getting her number, but when they asked her, she was just like, yep. I totally want to be in on that project.
P: Why were you drawn to the role of Pauline?
Nichols: I enjoy the duality of her life. She was a First Nations person and a white person in one person, like I am. I’ve always felt I have this dual life. I grew up on the coast where my family are hunters and fishers. When I went to university for the first time I felt so alone because I’d never been away from home before. It was emotional and difficult for me, but I wanted to pursue a career in opera. It’s what I have a passion for and it’s another way of storytelling.
P: This sounds like a perfect role for you. No one else has ever performed it before. You kind of get to create it. What has this meant for your approach?
Nichols: This is the fourth new opera I’ve done. It’s enjoyable getting to be creator of these roles. I mean, other people give input on how they want it to be done, but ultimately it’s up to me to make the final decisions because I’m going to be onstage on opening night. Hopefully the directors and everyone will be elated with it.
P: Pauline Johnson’s work is really performable on its own. It’s lyrical, in the first person, reads like monologue, uses internal rhyme, and is full of exclamation. The libretto is a mixed work from Pauline Johnson and Margaret Atwood. How did the performability of her work translate into the opera?
Nichols: It’s been seamlessly done. You wouldn’t know what parts are Margaret and Pauline. It goes together as this storyline — in and out of dreams. Tobin wrote the pitches, the notes, the rhythms, and where he thinks the words should fit. Margaret has tried to keep it true to the poetry it was. There are complete arias out of Pauline’s poetry. A lot of times in opera you’ll find the same word repeated over and over and over. I think Margaret has kept the poetry. There’s a couple places where there is repetition, but I have to find reasons behind each repeat. As a performer I have to think about why I am saying it multiple times, what is different between each one, and what is my emotion behind each one. I have to find emotions in the words and hopefully draw the audience into the show.
Pauline opens at the York Theatre on May 23 and runs May 25, 27, 29 and 31.