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Dysfunction, Set In Boston

Boston Lyric Opera’s latest production is an opera version of Margaret Atwood’s novel A Handmaid’s Tale, a story of a dysfunctional future society, staged in the most authentic setting possible, a basketball court. And not just any basketball court, but one at Harvard University, which is the setting for the novel. The first lines of the book refer to a gymnasium converted into a dormitory where the protagonist sleeps. So that’s where the opera will be performed. The opera is set in and around Cambridge, especially at Harvard, or what in the tale formerly had been Harvard.

The Danish composer Poul Ruders persuaded Ms. Atwood to allow an adaptation of the novel as an opera in the 1990s. Paul Bentley, a British writer, worked with him to adapt the libretto, which adheres closely to the story of the novel. Ruders himself translated it into Danish for the opera’s premier at the Danish Royal Opera in 2000, where it was greeted with critical acclaim. The American premier at Minnesota Opera was also a great success, and it has been followed by other productions around the country. This production is the East Coast premier.

Credit Liza Voll / BLO.org
Ofglen (Michell Trainor) and Offed (Jennifer Johnson Cano) try not to seem suspicious on their daily walk

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano sings the role of the Handmaid whose story this is. She has been taken from her husband and daughter to be indoctrinated to act as a surrogate mother serving a “commander” named Fred, which means she has been renamed Offred. In the near future society known as Gilead, the government is run by Christian fundamentalists according to Puritan ideals. The commander is part of the elite, and women no longer have rights to property, to work, even to read. Secret police are everywhere and rules are strictly enforced, but Offred still manages to evade some of the rules and she still has memories of her life before the establishment of Gilead.

Credit Liza Voll / BLO.org
Aunt Lydia (Caroline prepares the handmaidens for a birthing ritual

With the recent television series reviving interest in the novel, and women using Handmaid costumes as part of their political protests, this production is very timely. And it adds the powerful dimension of music to depict the action and emotions. You can also count on the BLO to present visually compelling staging. There are two performances left, on Friday, May 10 and Sunday, May 12. You can find tickets at blo.org, which also has several very informative blog postings about the production of A Handmaid’s Tale.

Walter Carroll has been presenting classical music on New England Public Media since 1989. His first classical music program was presented on WFCI, the campus station at Franklin College of Indiana. After graduating from Indiana University, he pursued a theatrical career, which took him to Amsterdam, where he remained for two years. He spent another nine years in Tokyo, appearing on NHK Radio and Television, dubbing films into English, narrating documentaries and providing voices for other recordings. Back in the United States he began his public radio career with New Hampshire Public Radio.