Margaret Atwood wasn't in the large and lively crowd, but her words filled the room. It was the first public sing-through of Atwood's Pauline, an opera about the Canadian poet Pauline Johnson composed by Tobin Stokes and commissioned by City Opera Vancouver. For the historic occasion, the Carnegie Centre in the heart of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside was packed with people ranging from the general director of the larger Vancouver Opera company to absolute neophytes.
With only six months until the chamber opera's premiere, Stokes spent the evening furiously taking notes: He was elated to hear the whole opera (in its current form) with a public audience, he says, but also humbled and frustrated.
"Because I just want to dive in. I just want to stand up and yell 'Stop! Let's try it this way.' Or 'I didn't mean it this way. Let's do this.' You just have to sit and take it," he says. "My entire score is full of new notes now. And they're not all answers. A lot of the things are just question marks. Like why did I write this? Why isn't this working? How are we going to get from A to B in this scene? The stakes aren't high enough here. The audience was jittery here."
Atwood has set Pauline in March, 1913, in the final week of the poet's life. Dying in terrific pain from breast cancer, and in a hallucinatory state from morphine, Johnson accepts visitors – some real, some imagined. Among the real visitors is her disapproving sister, Eva, who, upon arrival, instantly takes Pauline to task for the liberal life she has led – as a poet, actress and lover.
"What interested me was that it was this rather convoluted story involving two sisters, Eva and Pauline, and they had very different ideas about how to live in the world," says Atwood – who already knew her subject well before writing the libretto.
"An opera is not a documentary; it's a work of art," City Opera Vancouver's artistic director Charles Barber likes to say, a sentiment he repeated before conducting the workshop. "But this is a piece about a person who really lived, a kind of proto-Canadian who was being Canadian in [a contemporary] sense a century before anyone knew what she was really doing."
Johnson's father was a hereditary Mohawk chief and her mother was an English lady. Johnson, whose Mohawk name was Tekahionwake, struggled with, wrote about and mined for her professional life – including her popular stage show – this notion of dual identity. "Am I Mohawk? Am I English? Can I be both? And the central question of dual identity is the question around which the entire opera pivots," says Barber.
Like many Canadians, Atwood was first introduced to Johnson's work in elementary school. After that, Johnson's work "kind of dropped out of sight," says Atwood, who helped bring Johnson back into the conversation when she included her poetry in The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in 1982. Atwood wrote in the introduction: "Pauline Johnson, usually known only for such familiars as The Song My Paddle Sings, turns out to have been a poet of considerably more sophistication, despite her habit of dressing up in costumes and chanting in public."
Atwood grew up with opera in her home every Saturday afternoon on the radio – she does a hilarious impression of Milton Cross, the long-time host of live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. In high school, she wrote a home-economics opera ("I remember the whole thing," she says, "but let's not go into that right now").
In the late 1990s, Atwood – who by then had earned countless literary honours – wrote a libretto about Johnson for the Canadian Opera Company. But, she explains, the composer was "not keen on the subject." Off it went into the drawer. Then, when Barber came calling a few years ago, the subject matter felt right – especially given that Johnson's life ended here in Vancouver.
Pauline was originally supposed to star B.C. mezzo-soprano Judith Forst, but because of project delays, Forst's schedule could no longer accommodate the role. Christos Hatzis was announced as the opera's composer, but was replaced by Stokes – who found himself in the potentially intimidating position of composing the literary icon's first produced opera.
"The first time I contacted her through e-mail, I checked my syntax and weighed the formality of what I was sending," says Stokes. "And after that I never cared anymore. She's been great. … She understands that the libretto can be changed and moulded and suited in one way or another."
Atwood was not at the Carnegie event, but she did attend a workshop a few weeks before, and heard for the first time the words – hers and Johnson's – sung by Rose-Ellen Nichols as Pauline. Nichols happens to be of Coast Salish heritage.
"What was very cheering to me was that the person playing Pauline was in it heart and soul. And that she made everybody cry," says Atwood. Did she cry? "I'm a pretty dried up old creature, but I thought it was pretty touching. She did a good death scene."
Atwood was duly informed of the comments from the packed house at the Carnegie Centre – an audience that listened intently despite the absence of costumes, props or surtitles, and through background noise such as the wailing of sirens and the flushing of toilets.
"I've never been to an opera in my life," said one appreciative audience member. "And I'm 60 years old." Another woman read a long list of comments she had jotted down all over her coffee cup, prompting another to express relief that the woman hadn't ordered a grande.
"It's really great to hear it that way. I can pretend I'm an audience member and come away with a whole new perspective, and then go back to the drawing board," says Stokes, who has also written an Iraq War opera for COV, called Fallujah, which will be presented in a similar stand-and-sing-through form at the Kennedy Center in Washington in March.
Within a week of the Carnegie workshop, a decision was made to add a prologue, to give the audience a sense of Johnson's life and accomplishments before she became ill.
When asked whether she would write another opera libretto, Atwood was non-committal. "I never predict the future, especially at this time in my life. I could drop dead any minute," she deadpanned.
She is planning to be in Vancouver for the opera's premiere next May at the newly opened York Theatre.
"Unless I drop dead," she offers again. "Well you know that's what Pauline does at the end. But that was somewhat predictable."