Meet Pauline Johnson through City Opera Vancouver

He called her and she said sure she’d do it. That’s what Charles Barber said about asking Margaret Atwood if she would be interested in working on a chamber opera  about Pauline Johnson with Vancouver composer Tobin Stokes. There was no hesitation said Barber, describing Atwood as easy to work with and so incredibly smart, way smarter than you might even imagine.

Well, no, I thought. I think we all think she’s pretty smart.

220px-Tekahionwake_ca_1895image from Wikipedia

The event was part of the  Heart of the City festival in Vancouver’s downtown east side hosted at the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum and Archives (which I didn’t even know existed), just around the corner from the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Gardens. The festival runs to Sunday, November 3.

As we’d discover, each of the four people seated at the front of the room  have been working together on a new chamber opera (that means a smaller, more intimate opera) for City Opera Vancouver about the late great E. Pauline Johnson or Pauline Johnson to most of us. The “E” stands for Emily, which was her mother’s name.

If you’re Canadian, you, at the very least, are familiar with the name. Pauline Johnson. Poet. Performer. Mohawk chief as a father. English immigrant mother. She travelled around Canada, the U.S., and Britain entertaining, reciting her lyric poetry, playing up her half blood ancestry. She was an independent woman, way ahead of her time, travelling on her own when women just didn’t do that and living between 1861 and 1913.

She paddled her canoe in the waters between Coal Harbour and Lost Lagoon. Born in Brantford, Ontario. Lived a comfortable life as a child in a large house on the Grand River called Chiefswood that she spent the rest of her life missing and romanticizing. Never married (rumour has it her heart was broken)  but she had many suitors as they would say back then, and one special one whose photo she kept in a locket that she never removed.

She died penniless in a rooming house on Howe Street, looked after in her last days (when she was suffering the horrors of breast cancer at a time when there was no treatment) by the women of IODE. She is the only person to be officially buried in Stanley Park, with a monument north of the Teahouse or Sequoia Grill. You’ll find it if you really want to.

You can read the definitive biography, Flint & Feather by Charlotte Gray.

We met the opera company’s artistic director, Charles Barber, the director of Pauline, Norman Armour, who is the director of Vancouver’s Push Festival. We heard from the composer, Tobin Stokes, and the young opera singer, Rose Ellen Nichols who is to be Pauline Johnson on stage.

Nichols hails from Sechelt and the Sechelt Band and grew up fishing and hunting with her family. She couldn’t really explain how it is that she went from a simple rural childhood to moving to the city at 17 and then getting involved in Opera at UBC but she did say that like Johnson, she has always felt that she has felt torn between two lives – one back at home and the one she now lives in the city.

It was fascinating to be able to sit and hear Barber talk about what it takes to develop and stage this new opera (budget: $300,000), for five nights in May 2014. The event will take place in the York Theatre,  the newest addition to  The Cultch.

The group had just spent the day workshopping with Margaret Atwood in attendance.

It was interesting that Barber knew so many of the people in attendance on a first name basis; people who live in the downtown east side and who have probably attended other events at Carnegie Community Centre.

The premiere of  Pauline is set for May 15th and run for five days. But here’s the thing. There’s a performance (no costumes) set to run at Carnegie Centre on November 29th from 7-9 pm. It’s open to the public. The goal is to get feedback from an audience.

Are you in?