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

Nick Clark
Wednesday 24 July 2013 17:19 BST
Canadian author Margaret Atwood explores a new aria with her first ever opera, Pauline
Canadian author Margaret Atwood explores a new aria with her first ever opera, Pauline

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.

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