Versatile Vancouver stage director and co-founder of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival Norman Armour has been chosen to helm next year’s world premiere of Pauline, a chamber opera based on the life of legendary Canadian poet Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), by City Opera Vancouver.
Pauline, featuring an original score by Canadian composer Tobin Stokes and famed Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s debut as librettist, will run for six to 10 performances in May at the refurbished 400-seat York Theatre, the COV announced Wednesday. Casting for the estimated eight performers in the $300,000 production is expected to begin this spring.
Armour, 54, admitted in a brief phone interview he’s rather daunted by the prospect of taking on what will be his first opera – an opera, too, about a beloved literary figure. “When you tackle any person, trying to honour some aspect of a real person’s life, I think it can be intimidating . . . In some way, you want to do justice to certain aspects of the life. But on the other side, it’s not a biography; it’s an act of creative licence. You must take a creative angle on it, one that inevitably will leave certain things and take certain things out.”
Pauline has been a much-delayed project. It began as a commission in the late 1990s for Atwood from the then-director of the Toronto-based Canadian Opera Company, Richard Bradshaw. However, when her musical collaborator, Winnipeg native Randolph Peters, bowed out, the project went into hiatus for more than eight years. It resurfaced as a COV effort in early 2008, Atwood still on board but with a new composer: Toronto’s Christos Hatzis. Their collaboration was to be unveiled in 2010, but a final deal couldn’t be reached with Hatzis and another search started in fall 2011. Stokes, whose original opera credits include the 2011-12 COV production of Fallujah, was hired last year.
Armour noted that the COV “isn’t an organization with the scale of the [Vancouver] symphony or Ballet B.C. . . . but they’ve been doing some pretty bold things over the last few years, Fallujah [described as the world’s first opera about the Iraq war] being one of them, and picking up interest. Talking with Nora [Kelly, COV president] and Charles [Barber, artistic director], I’m really impressed by the care and commitment and depth of their feeling to the work . . . And Margaret Atwood is nothing to sneeze at.”