City Opera Vancouver has cast Pender Harbour mezzo-soprano Rose-Ellen Nichols in a career-making role in the new opera, Pauline that will have its world premiere in Vancouver at the end of May.
The opera is based on the life of Aboriginal poet Pauline Johnson, and Nichols will play the title role of Pauline towards the end of her life, at a time in 1913 when she was dying of breast cancer.
Some of her memories are real, some imagined. She hears her grandfather calling from the spirit world and looks back over her life.
For Nichols who has been working with a vocal coach memorizing the part, the process is really exciting.
“No one else has performed that role before,” she said “I get to create the role.”
For an opera singer this is magic.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote the libretto with music by Tobin Stokes, and it is considered a chamber opera, a smaller production with eight of the performers singing 14 roles. Adam Fisher plays the role of the Tenor. Norman Armour directs.
Nichols said Atwood has used her own words for the stories while incorporating Johnson’s poetry.
“It’s a seamless blending,” she said.
Atwood will be at the sold-out opening night gala. The opera is creating a buzz in Vancouver music circles and tickets are selling briskly.
Nichols is proud to be of Coast Salish heritage and it helps her understand Johnson’s background. Johnson’s father was a Mohawk chief and her mother was a Quaker Englishwoman. Johnson often dressed as a white woman then changed to her buckskin to perform her poetry as a Mohawk. It’s a duality that makes the character interesting.
One of Nichols’ favourite songs is called Lost Lagoon, a duet between Johnson and a white man. Nichols was proud to be able to sing this piece on site at Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park on the park’s anniversary.
Nichols grew up in Pender Harbour, and worked with a teacher, Joan Munro of Sechelt, from the age of 10. The teaching was at the urging of her grandmother who knew that the child had talent and needed to take lessons.
Growing up, Nichols participated in the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Performing Arts (currently underway in its 41st year) and recalls that it was nerve wracking.
“The first year I was a nervous 10-year-old and I sung My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music,” she recalled.
“As a teen she performed in the Sunshine Coast Music Society’s production of Fiddler on the Roof then went to study at Kwantlen College.
“I was only 17 and so scared to be away from home,” she said.
Nonetheless she went on to the University of British Columbia to earn her masters degree and has gone on to perform nationally and abroad. Audiences on the Coast have seen her in concert at the Raven’s Cry Theatre and as part of another innovative opera, Dreamhealer, based on psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s concepts.
When not practising for Pauline, Nichols is constantly sewing, and she likes her day job at Fabricland. She enjoys the costuming for the operatic productions and hopes to make herself a fantastic costume for the gala opening.
Pauline, the opera, runs May 23, 25, 27, 29 and 31 at the York Theatre in Vancouver. Tickets are on sale on-line at: tickets.TheCultch.com or by phoning 1-604-251-1363.