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BLO's new production of The Handmaid's Tale, which will be performed at the Ray Lavietes Pavilion at Harvard University, a basketball gymnasium, is a rare opportunity to see an opera in the physical location in which it is set. In the fictional world of the novel by Margaret Atwood and opera by Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley, as the new totalitarian government is established, our narrator finds herself in a reeducation center known as the Red Center to be indoctrinated as a Handmaid, which she notes used to be a school gymnasium. Later, renamed as Offred and now the Handmaid of a high-ranking commander, her occasional opportunities to go out of the house and her memories of the “time before” identify her location as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and specifically many iconic Harvard University buildings—thus making us wonder if perhaps the gymnasium that BLO has chosen as the venue for its production is the very one Atwood had in mind as she was writing. Spaces that were once accessible to students and the public, such as dormitories and the boathouse on the Charles River, are now off-limits to all except Gilead’s Secret Police, nicknamed the Eyes. Shops, which once dotted Church Street, and entertainment centers, such as the Brattle Theatre, have been turned into memories for Offred. The most notable location is the Harvard Wall that encloses the university, which is now where bodies hang.
THE COMPOSER p12-15_Poul RudersDanish composer Poul Ruders was mainly known as a concerto specialist before he convinced Margaret Atwood to allow The Handmaid’s Tale to be adapted into an operatic libretto in the mid-1990s. In the 1980s, Oliver Knussen brought Ruders’ name to prominence by conducting and recording his works with the London Sinfonietta and for the BBC. Ruders’ interest in and frequent visits to the U.S. have inspired some of his most successful concert music: Manhattan Abstraction (1982) depicts the New York skyline as seen from Liberty Island in icy January; he set the entire text of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells for American soprano Lucy Shelton in 1993; and his Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean (2004) was inspired by the writings of Carl Sagan. As he read Atwood’s novel, Ruders heard “long, sustained towering chords, slowly becoming louder and louder,” and the more he read, the more convinced he became that it should be an opera. He contacted a skeptical Atwood: “To me it’s so well suited, because of the inherent drama. It’s packed with human emotions....
Musicologist and writer Laura Stanfield Prichard takes a deep dive into The Handmaid's Tale by Poul Ruders in this two-part series! BLO’s Spring Season pairs two modern English-language operas shaped by women’s voices. The first, Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia (1946), deals with the corruption of innocence and the outsider in society, themes that also dominated Britten’s 1945 triumph, Peter Grimes. BLO’s second offering is Poul Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale (2000), based on the iconic dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. p12-15_Margaret_Atwood_2015Groundbreaking Canadian author Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939, just 18 months before Britten began working on Grimes. She writes, “Having come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. It can’t happen here could not be depended on: anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.” Her controversial, speculative novel The Handmaid’s Tale was begun in 1984, while she was living in wall-encircled West Berlin. She heard daily sonic booms from the East German air force, sensed “the feeling of being spied on,” and was haunted by the many repurposed buildings (“This used to belong to... but then they disappeared.”).