Pauline Opera felled by score and mixed performances

Dec 19 2017, 10:52 am

The debut of the opera that Margaret Atwood wrote sold out quickly. People in the know purchased their tickets early, while others got left out in the dust. Was all the hype worth it?

The Good

When I first heard about the Pauline, the premise sounded amazing:

“City Opera Vancouver announces Pauline, a chamber opera based on the life and final days of Canadian writer, poet, and actress Pauline Johnson. The music for Pauline has been written by Tobin Stokes, and the libretto by Margaret Atwood.

Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) traveled across Canada, the United States and Great Britain giving readings of her own work when such independence was rare and remarkable. She was the child of a Mohawk chief and a Quaker Englishwoman, and torn by loyalty and ambition. Pauline lived her last years in Vancouver and died a terrible death of breast cancer, treated by crude surgery and morphine.”

As Artistic Director Charles Barber notes in his opening address: “Creating new opera is a frightening business. So many things can go wrong, and so many elements can go off the tracks. Even Mozart had flops.”

There are moments where you can see Charles’ vision fulfilled within the two acts. While I’ve never been a die-hard Atwood fan, it’s undeniable that Pauline is an important Canadian story, weaving together history and mysticism in that special way that Atwood does so well.

VPL 9430 E. Pauline Johnson

The libretto (text) works well in conveying Atwood’s complex themes: the yearning for Pauline’s disappearing heritage, the leading of two lives as a Tekahionwake princess (literally, ‘double-life’ in Mohawk) and as a half-breed, the tribulations of being a female entertainer in the late 19th century. It made me want to find out more about the life of this legendary Canadian poet and performer, and seeing her story unfold on the operatic stage was a perfect, melodramatic fit.

The Bad

The modest budget of Pauline shows within some of its critical pieces, most notably in Tobin Stokes’ musical score. The score feels flat, for the lack of a better word, and the performers are left to make the best of parts relatively devoid of excitement or climax. Given, the opera is depicting Pauline’s slow decay into cancer, but there were also humorous moments within Atwood’s text, as well as rehashings of Pauline’s younger life and adventures on the stage. I simply didn’t feel much at all of Stokes’ score, which is pretty damning given the medium.

The performers were a mixed bag. Adam Fisher performed beautifully in his three roles as Doctor, Manager, and Drayton; each noticably distinct from each other. John Minagro as Grandfather Smoke had some great moments as a ghost coming to lead Pauline away, which is a pity given he doesn’t appear with much variance throughout the play. The lead herself, Rose-Ellen Nichols, exhibited great cheek in Pauline’s self-deprecating sarcasm and mood swings; however, it was telling that her acting was stronger than her singing.


Pauline may be an important story within Canadian cannon, but there are definite kinks to be hammered out before this work is ready for prime time. Weak score and mixed performances hurt the stronger points of the opera, and I sometimes wished that I was simply reading one of Atwood’s books and imagining the scenes myself. At the end of the day, if Pauline is an important step in creating new Canadian works, it’s also a perfect example of the limited funding that exists for these ventures in Vancouver.

Pauline, a City Opera Vancouver work, premiered at The York Theatre last week. No performances remaining, more information here.