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Rose-Ellen Nichols in Pauline, written by Margaret Atwood, in 2014.Diamond's Edge Photography

It was opening night in Rose-Ellen Nichols’s breakout role – City Opera Vancouver’s Pauline, about the Canadian writer and performer Pauline Johnson. With a libretto by Margaret Atwood (and composed by Tobin Stokes), this world premiere had attracted national attention. Three hours before curtain at Vancouver’s York Theatre, disaster: The power went out. The team held an emergency meeting, the production manager hoofed it to Burnaby to source a generator, and audience members – including Ms. Atwood – milled about on the sidewalk outside the theatre. The dressing room was another scene.

“Rose was by far the coolest, the most self-composed and the one most likely to crack jokes to release tension,” says Charles Barber, COV’s artistic director. “And she was entirely supportive of everyone else, some of whom were a bit anxious.”

Of all the performers in that May, 2014, production, Ms. Nichols had perhaps the most at stake – both with this premiere and this delay. A demanding role set during the final week of Ms. Johnson’s life as she was dying from cancer, it kept Ms. Nichols on stage for the entire two-act opera.

“This was her major debut in a leading role and she created the role. It was a big moment,” Ms. Atwood says.

The show did ultimately go on – thanks to that generator – more than an hour late, and Ms. Nichols, a Coast Salish mezzo-soprano playing a poet of Mohawk and European descent, was “letter perfect,” Dr. Barber says.

“She did so well,” Ms. Atwood says. “She was glowing.”

Three years later, Ms. Nichols took on another crucial role in a world premiere Canadian opera, Missing. With libretto by Métis-Dene writer Marie Clements and composer Brian Current, the opera took on the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in English and Gitxsan. Ms. Nichols created the role of Native Mother. Her performance was searing as she mourned her lost child in a universal language: a raw, shaken wail.

“She brought a certain gravitas to this grieving role that quite frankly brought us all to tears,” says Ian Rye, chief executive of Pacific Opera Victoria, which co-commissioned the opera with COV.

“She knew how to use that rich, smoky mezzo-soprano voice to elicit emotion and to be vulnerable and to elicit our own feelings,” he adds. “I was describing her voice to somebody as rich and warm and beautiful and realized that’s who she was as a woman: beautiful, rich and warm.”

Ms. Nichols brought warmth wherever she went: the stage, the rehearsal hall, the classroom, the fabric store where she worked for years.

Rose-Ellen Nichols in Vancouver on May 15, 2014.The Globe and Mail

“It’s beyond corny to talk about how someone lights up a room when they enter it, but with Rose, it’s true,” Dr. Barber says. “Part of the light was not just her glorious personality, but it was her endless sense of fun and humour and joy. It was always there, it was real, it was the same onstage and off. It wasn’t an act. It was Rose.”

Preparing for Missing, Ms. Nichols began having stomach pains. At first, she wrote it off to stress, but it turned out to be colon cancer. It was aggressive and spread. Over three years, Ms. Nichols underwent three major surgeries, along with multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. She lost her uterus, ovaries, bowel and bladder.

“But she was not quitting,” says her mother, Rhonda Nichols. “She wanted to keep going. But she just couldn’t do it. Her body was giving up.”

In the last two weeks of her life, doctors found another tumour – on her pelvis, inoperable. She was also diagnosed with COVID-19.

Ms. Nichols died in hospital in Vancouver on Jan. 30. She was 41.

“We’ve lost a wonderful artist and a wonderful person,” says Nancy Hermiston, chair of the Voice and Opera Divisions at the University of British Columbia’s School of Music, where Ms. Nichols did her undergraduate and master’s degree. “She was a wonderful human being; one of the best I’ve ever met in my life.”

Rose-Ellen Nichols was born on Oct. 6, 1980, in Sechelt, B.C. Growing up in the Madeira Park area of Pender Harbour on the Sunshine Coast, she could sing before she could talk, her mother says. “Danced down the hall to Fraggle Rock when she was like two years old. She just never stopped tapping those legs and singing those songs,” Rhonda Nichols says.

Her father, Louis (everyone calls him Bud), worked as a commercial fisherman and Rose loved going out on the water with him. With her brothers, Louis and Roland (Roly), she would accompany her mother to the restaurant the family operated near the Earls Cove ferry terminal.

Around that time, Madonna released a single that they heard once on a drive. “And the next time she heard her on the radio, she sang it fluently with no flaws,” Ms. Nichols recalls.

The family listened mostly to country music; certainly never opera. That came with Rose’s formal training, which began at 10.

“I’d be screeching away in my room and [my brothers] would be ‘Oh, shut her up, I’m trying to do my homework,’” Rose-Ellen Nichols told The Globe and Mail in a 2014 interview. “Now they’re so proud.”

At what is now Kwantlen Polytechnic University, she was taught by Dale Throness. In 2001, she auditioned for UBC. “Immediately I thought oh my gosh, this is such a beautiful voice. And I knew she was a special performer and I thought this is the real deal,” Prof. Hermiston says.

“She had something that you can’t teach. She had that special charisma and she had that glorious voice.”

Ms. Nichols excelled as an opera student. A hard worker, she was always happy to be onstage – whether she was the leading soloist or in the chorus.

At UBC, Ms. Nichols met legendary mezzo-soprano Judith Forst, who became a mentor and coach.

“I think some people have the ability to lose themselves in the character and that was Rose,” Ms. Forst says. “She dug in and found the soul of a piece.”

At UBC, she became especially tight with two fellow students, Gina McLellan (now Morel) and Lisa-Dawn Markle. The three sisters, as they called themselves, spent a lot of time together in the costume shop, sometimes pulling all-nighters. Even under pressure, there were always antics, and laughs.

Ms. Nichols was a highly skilled sewer and crafter and had an amazing fashion sense – showing up in often unforgettable outfits of her own design and construction such as skin-tight leopard print pants or an ugly Christmas sweater, complete with lights and epaulets.

Ms. Nichols had a job at Fabricland, where she would rescue bits and pieces of leftover fabric and create amazing outfits.

Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman recalls an outfit Ms. Nichols wore to a Missing rehearsal: a gorgeous zombie-print skirt she had made, accessorized with blood-red jewellery and a scarf to match the gore. “Her fashion was so much more than just looking cool,” Ms. Newman says. “It was a conversation starter and a way into her world.”

Rose-Ellen Nichols's talent for comedy was apparent in her standout performance as the Duchess from The Gondoliers.Tim Matheson/UBC Opera

In her apartment, she had a Christmas tree that she kept up year-round, changing the decorations on it to match the holiday. She called it her Seasons Tree.

The part of Pauline had been written for Ms. Forst, but with delays, she was unavailable and recommended Ms. Nichols. “It’s the voice for the part and she’s right for the part and her background is right for the part,” Ms. Forst told Dr. Barber.

Dr. Barber was impressed with her in rehearsals. She was always so well prepared, he was shocked to learn that Ms. Nichols had dyslexia.

“Most people don’t know that. And I suspect no one who has ever seen her perform would have any hint that this is what she was overcoming every damn time,” he says, pointing out that opera calls for learning roles in many languages.

“Rose had the gift of natural comfortable command onstage and off,” Dr. Barber says. “The overwhelming impact after is: Wow, what just happened?”

She was also an excellent comedic performer; a standout role at UBC was the Duchess in The Gondoliers. When Ms. Hermiston played a video for her students recently, many wanted to know: who was that extraordinary woman?

“She could steal the show; she’s so good,” Prof. Hermiston says. “And I say steal the show, but she never ever took the focus away from her colleagues.”

And then came the role of a lifetime. It was in Missing that Ms. Nichols met Ms. Newman, a Kwagiulth and Stó:lo mezzo-soprano with European heritage. They formed a fast, deep and lasting friendship.

“She definitely made the material more bearable,” says Ms. Newman, who now hosts Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC Radio 2.

“She understood the need to shake it off and to laugh in between moments. But she also took it on so completely,” Ms. Newman says. “She lived that mourning mother every single time we rehearsed and every single time we played that.”

Ms. Newman recalls Ms. Nichols’s fondness for unusual snacks, bringing Moscow Mule flavoured chips and Bac’n Puffs to cast parties. She was universally beloved, Ms. Newman says. “Honestly; I’ve never heard anyone say anything about Rose that wasn’t positive.”

Ms. Nichols wore a red dress for the first Missing rehearsal with the orchestra. “Which was a very Rose-Ellen way of gently honouring our missing sisters,” Ms. Newman says. Inspired by Ms. Nichols, they all wore red dresses to the official donor after-party.

Of course the fact that she was Indigenous was crucial to these roles – and to the opera ecosystem.

“I really wanted Rose-Ellen to be part of the work of creating opera that speaks to our Indigenous joys. I wanted her in our circle, co-leading the process of balancing out hierarchy within classical music and making room for matriarchs. It is ironic that we are missing one of the heroines that has inspired the movement to tell stories about why we are still here,” Ms. Newman told The Globe.

The loss hits on so many levels, including what could have been. “I think she would have gone on as she matured, as her voice grew, to play big houses as well and would have had a long, long career,” Prof. Hermiston says.

A devoted aunt, Ms. Nichols even named one of her nephews, Fischer. “Because commercial fishing has really died out and we don’t have any more fishermen in our immediate family,” Rhonda Nichols says.

On the last night of her life, Ms. Markle and Ms. Morel played recordings for her: Ms. Nichols in Gondoliers; the three sisters rehearsing for a concert.

“When she heard her own voice, she kind of just stilled, like she was listening,” Ms. Morel says.

Ms. Nichols died the next morning. “It was a fight, right to the end,” her mother says, ”and not even one second of complaining, even when she was dying. She just wanted to open her eyes and look at everybody.”

Ms. Nichols leaves her parents, her brothers and their partners, nieces and nephews, a long list of colleagues, fans and friends, including her two “sisters.”

A scholarship is being set up in her name to benefit emerging artists in the performing arts. “She was so thrilled when we told her that this was in the works, and so touched,” Ms. Morel says. “Her words about it were: I could change somebody’s life.”