Atwood pens libretto for Vancouver opera
Published Tuesday, March 11, 2008 5:27PM EDT
TORONTO - The work of acclaimed author Margaret Atwood will hit the stage once again, this time with the novelist crafting the libretto for a chamber opera based on the life of Canadian poet Pauline Johnson.
The piece will be mounted by City Opera Vancouver in early 2010, the company's artistic director said via satellite from Vancouver as Atwood and composer Christos Hatzis discussed the work from Toronto in a joint news conference Tuesday.
Although the project is just the latest in a string of recent stage works featuring her words, Atwood said she has not found a new theatrical calling.
"It's not a huge, huge jump (to write a libretto), but it's also not what I would ever be able to do for a living because you don't make very much money doing it,'' said Atwood.
"But for me it's a pleasure, it's an excursion, it's a thrill, but it's not a career.''
Atwood is best known for literary classics like "The Robber Bride,'' "Alias Grace'' and "The Blind Assassin,'' but the prize-winning author says she's has had a long history writing for the stage -- stretching back to her first theatrical piece at age seven.
That was followed by high school works that included "a home economics opera'' about washing and doing laundry, and a puppet show business that enacted classic fairy tales at children's birthday parties.
"You learn a lot about dramatic timing that way -- if you can hold an audience of five-year-olds, you can do anything,'' said Atwood, also joking that it prepared her for a later career in poetry readings.
"I've been listening to opera and reading opera librettos since I was a teenager,'' Atwood added after the teleconference in an interview.
"I originally read them because they were so preposterous I got a big kick out of them. I think my favourite is `(Il) Trovatore' where (gypsy character Azucena) burns the wrong baby,'' she says with a laugh before slipping into the character's voice: "`Oops! How did I do that?' ''
Atwood's latest project is titled "Pauline,'' a chamber opera that details the personal and professional trials of Johnson, a poet torn between her aboriginal and white identities, her strict upbringing and wild nature, the stage and her private life.
Johnson, born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont., in 1861, is known for her poem "The Song My Paddle Sings.''
Charles Barber, artistic director of City Opera Vancouver, said a director for "Pauline'' has yet to be found, but the show is expected to premiere in January or February of 2010 at the city's Pantages Theatre, "a 100-year-old dazzler of a house'' that seats 650 people.
He added that he would like to see the $400,000 production eventually tour across Canada.
This is not Atwood's first stab as a librettist. She has also written the words for a chamber opera based on the Mesopotamian legend of Inanna, younger sister of the goddess of death. The work was commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company several years ago but has not been mounted.
Other theatrical ventures have included Atwood's novel "The Handmaid's Tale,'' which was turned into an opera in 2003 by the Danish Opera Society, and a stage version of her book "The Penelopiad,'' which she adapted for a joint production by the Canadian National Arts Centre and the British Royal Shakespeare Company.
Mezzo-soprano Judith Forst, who will portray the title character in "Pauline,'' said Atwood "understands what it is to sing.''
"When you have to sing words, it is not like doing a play where you have no time restrictions, no pitch restrictions,'' Forst said via satellite from Vancouver, where she was joined by Barber and Nora Kelly, president of City Opera Vancouver.
"All of a sudden one word will replace 20 words. So it has to be the right word, and that's what she understands without having a note of music.''