Yesterday Richard and I were lucky enough to be able to draw on some connections to sit in on a dress rehearsal of the new opera Pauline, about the Mohawk-Canadian poet and performance artist Pauline Johnson, who died in Vancouver in 1913 and is buried in Stanley Park. Commissioned by City Opera Vancouver, the intimate chamber opera features a libretto by CanLit icon Margaret Atwood and a beautiful score by Tobin Stokes. The work is being directed by PuSh Festival AD Norman Armour, assisted by Club PuSh Manager Cameron Mackenzie--hence our in.
Respecting the fact that what we saw was a working dress (in fact it was the first time the performers had tried on their costumes), I won't reveal any of the production or plot details here--except to say that the personal, professional and cultural conflicts between Pauline (the commanding mezzo Rose Ellen Nichols) and her sister Eva (Sarah Vardy, who has a stunning soprano) provide the work with much of its dramatic through-line, leading to a climactic coup-de-théâtre. And also that John Webber's lighting design is simply spectacular.
Johnson's story certainly makes for great tragic opera: an "Indian Princess" who channels her bi-cultural heritage into verse and stage stardom in Victorian-era Canada, but who is preyed upon by various "pale-faced men" (including a shiftless would-be lover and unscrupulous manager, both played by the tenor Adam Fisher), and who eventually dies in poverty and ravaged by cancer. Atwood's libretto both plays up and undermines these clichés, and the wider applications of her story to the consumption of First Nations culture are brought out (sorry, another production revelation) in Tim Matheson's projections. Ironically (or not), the libretto is at its strongest when it incorporates Johnson's own verse, its lyrical romanticism strangely well-suited to Stokes' atonal music.
And while we're on the subject of sound, I should mention that the York Theatre's acoustics are pretty bloody amazing. Richard and I were sitting in the second row of the balcony and when music director and conductor Charles Barber occasionally halted the proceedings in the first act to ask about the balance between the orchestra and the voices, we and our confrères were able to give him the thumbs up. Indeed, it was almost like we were down there in the pit with him.
It was a tremendous privilege to have been able to sit in on this run-through of such an important new work before leaving town. As we were exiting the theatre staff were working on the logistics of how to get Ms. Atwood in and out of the York's tiny lobby in advance of Friday's gala opening--which has the makings of an opera in and of itself.