Margaret Atwood writes her first opera about the tragic life of Canadian heroine Pauline Johnson

The Handmaid's Tale author has spent 15 years penning her operatic debut

Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood is set to finally see a 15-year project realised, when her first commissioned opera is staged in 2014.

The celebrated author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin revealed she had begun writing a libretto about the extraordinary life of Canadian writer, poet and actress Pauline Johnson as long ago as 1999 but the work failed to see the light of day.

Yet, City Opera Vancouver has revealed the work, Pauline, will finally hit the stage next May with mezzo-soprano Judith Forst in the title role. It is unclear whether the work will travel to the UK.

Novelists including David Mitchell, Philip Hensher have turned their hand to opera, while The Time Traveller’s Wife author Audrey Niffenegger was commissioned to write for the Royal Ballet.

Ms Atwood, 73, has long said it was “about time” that Johnson was restored to her rightful place in Canada’s literary tradition, and her arias will include some of the actual poetry.

The poet was the child of a Mohawk chief and a Quaker Englishwoman, born on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. She was, the author said, “torn by loyalty and ambition”.

Johnson, who was born in 1861, took her work across Canada, the US and Britain for almost two decades giving readings sometimes in native dress and sometimes in ball gowns “when such independence was rare and remarkable,” the opera company said.

At the time the project was first announced, Ms Atwood said: ''She had courage, brains and beauty, like many of the best operatic heroines. She also led a double life, in which a secret love, a jealous sister and an early death were elements.''

The opera is set at the end of her life; she died of breast cancer, which had been treated with crude surgery, in 1913.

“Haunted by failure, torn by her dual identity as both Mohawk and white, Pauline Johnson fights to confront her past before the end, as her doctor tries to control the pain and her sister tries to control the story that will be told,” the opera company said.

While her novel The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted into an opera by the Danish Opera Society, as well as by the ENO, Pauline is the first opera Ms Atwood has written professionally. She revealed that she had two previous attempts, one at school as part of a home economics assignment and another in summer camp, which culminated in the cast stabbing each other with forks.

The work was initially written for the Canadian Opera Company in 1999, and Ms Atwood agreed to do it after the artistic director confirmed it would not be “screechy” adding: “I can’t stand screechy.” Yet the project was put on ice when the original musical collaborator, Randolph Peters, pulled out.

It was resurrected by small company City Opera Vancouver in 2008 with composer Christos Hatzis, but foundered again when he too walked away.

It is once more on course with Tobin Stokes, a Canadian composer, who was selected from a pool of more than 40.

Ms Atwood, who was born in Ottawa and began writing at the age of 16, won the Man Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin at the turn of the century.

Her omission from this week’s Booker longlist came as a surprise after experts had heavily tipped MaddAddam to be among the 13 titles announced.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there