Novelist Margaret Atwood writes opera libretto

Author of The Handmaid's Tale explores the life of Canadian writer Pauline Johnson

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Booker Prize-winning novelist Margaret Atwood has written her first opera libretto. The work depicts the life of legendary Canadian writer, actor and poet Pauline Johnson.

The opera, currently titled Pauline, will be premiered at the Vancouver City Opera House in May 2014, 15 years after work on it first began with the Canadian Opera Company. The project was put on hold for eight years after the original composer Randolph Peters dropped out. In 2010 it was taken over by City Opera Vancouver but again had to be put to one side.

It wasn’t until composer Tobin Stokes signed up last year and until the project received a grant of £19,000 ($30,000) from the Vancouver Foundation on 3 July this year that the original idea was finally given the go-ahead. Six to 10 performances are planned for next May in the East Vancouver York Theatre. 

The opera is set in Vancouver at the end of Johnson’s life. As City Opera Vancouver describes it: ‘Haunted by failure, tortured by her dual identity… 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.’

Speaking at the time the project was announced, Atwood said: ‘She [Johnson] had the 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.’

It’s not the first time Atwood’s work has been associated with opera however; back in 2000 her novel The Handmaid’s Tale was made into an opera by librettist Paul Bentley and the Danish Royal Opera.

Polly Bartlett