‘Handmaid’s Tale’ in a gym? Boston Lyric Opera transforms a new space.

Why We Wrote This

New audiences are coveted by the fine arts. For an opera company in Boston, a shift in thought about having a regular home has brought the group to places and people it hadn’t previously reached. Is this change – seen here in a time lapse video – a model?

Jingnan Peng/The Christian Science Monitor
The Boston Lyric Opera rehearses its latest production, ‘The Handmaid's Tale,’ at Harvard University’s Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 1. In recent years the BLO has also performed at a museum, a synagogue, and an ice-skating rink.

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For most of the year, Harvard University’s Lavietes Pavilion is filled with basketballs thudding off backboards and sneakers squeaking on parquet. But for a few days in May, all that will be replaced by the trilling vibrato of sopranos washing over the bleachers. 

The Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the company’s largest to date, is showcasing a transient approach to opera that could offer a model for others. Since 2015, when a contract dispute forced the group out of its previous home, the BLO has gotten creative about where it performs. Among the spaces it’s used are an ice-skating rink and a synagogue. 

“It allows us to bring opera to neighborhoods, not expect everyone to come to us, but actually take us to other places in other areas,” says Esther Nelson, the company’s general and artistic director. “Much of where we put opera today is sort of locked into a European legacy, and that can be a handicap because it then no longer allows the art form to expand beyond what the venue offers.”

To mount an adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Boston Lyric Opera took a page out of the original novel. Specifically the first page. The opera company is staging its May production in the very same gym described in the opening scene of Margaret Atwood’s feminist story, which unfolds in a dystopian version of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The meta setting is part inspiration, part necessity, as the 42-year-old opera company no longer has a permanent home. In 2015, the group and its longtime host, Boston’s Shubert Theatre, disagreed on the terms of a contract renegotiation.

The BLO saw the dislodgement as an opportunity. Over the past four years, it has staged productions in various venues across the city and its satellite neighborhoods. Not just inside theaters, but also at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, a synagogue, and an ice-skating rink. The BLO’s pop-up installations have empowered it to find more creative ways to present shows, shrug off fusty traditions associated with opera, and diversify its audience. It could be a model for others to emulate.

Jingnan Peng/The Christian Science Monitor
Caroline Worra as Aunt Lydia at a rehearsal of the Boston Lyric Opera's ‘The Handmaid's Tale’ on May 1, 2019.

“It allows us to bring opera to neighborhoods, not expect everyone to come to us, but actually take us to other places in other areas,” says Esther Nelson, general and artistic director of the BLO. “Much of where we put opera today is sort of locked into a European legacy, and that can be a handicap because it then no longer allows the art form to expand beyond what the venue offers.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is the company’s largest-scale production to date.  

Over 72 hours, 200 workers transformed Harvard University’s Lavietes Pavilion into the set, a detention center that will be familiar to readers of the book or the popular TV series on Hulu. Forbidding brick walls bookend both ends of the stage, which includes a courtyard lined with utilitarian benches. Fluorescent lights embedded on top of the bricks amplify the harsh effect. (See time-lapse video, below.)

“There are video projections on the walls and the walls actually help with the acoustics as well,” explains Bradley Vernatter, acting production director for the show, surveying the set from the bleachers at a recent dress rehearsal. “The goal is always to weave acoustic decision-making into as much of the design as possible,” he says.

The set’s palette is a relentless gray, designed to showcase the vivid color contrast of the female characters’ iconic red-hooded capes. Props include barbed-wire gates mounted on wheels, along with beds, tables, and a gallows pole as tall as one of the gym’s basketball hoops.

In advance of opening night on May 5, when Ms. Atwood herself is expected to attend, the pressure is on to get every detail right. The production director roams the stands with a sound gun to measure sound levels. For most of the year, the gymnasium is filled with basketballs thudding off backboards, sneakers squeaking on parquet, and the grunts of tall athletes. But at the dress rehearsal, it is the trilling vibrato of sopranos that washes over the bleachers. The seats are covered in drapes to replicate the impact that the audience of 1,500 will have on the acoustics. Sound baffles mounted above the 65-piece orchestra help reflect the tremor of kettle drums and murmuration of strings into the stands. The singers are unamplified. Yet their voices are so powerful that one half expects a crescendo of high C notes to threaten the structural integrity of the glass ceiling.

“The ceiling creates acoustic issues,” says Mr. Vernatter. “Also, it creates design issues because in a theater you would have a dark space, but a lighting designer can control every element of light that you’re experiencing. We have matinees. We have evening shows. The quality of the light will be different based on the time of day.”

He occasionally glances at a hand-held thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature. The air conditioning units had to be turned off because they were too noisy. Mr. Vernatter even asked Harvard to unplug the Jumbotron hovering above the court because it emitted an ambient hum.

Those sorts of hiccups are minor compared to the larger logistical challenges for BLO productions. For starters, they have to find rehearsal spaces for hundreds of people. The BLO plans its productions three years in advance, says Ms. Nelson, so it’s difficult to book venues so far ahead. Yet she feels the advantages outweigh the hassles. No longer reliant on other theaters’ booking systems, the BLO can now see who its attendees are – and forge a direct marketing and fundraising connection with them.

“It’s very clear now with our audience that we have a much younger profile,” says Ms. Nelson. “Depending on what neighborhood we are in, it reflects the neighborhood more, who’s present.”

She adds that their more traditional repertoire, such as “The Barber of Seville,” won’t necessarily have crossover appeal. But productions such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” – based on Poul Ruders’ contemporary score and featuring a libretto by “Game of Thrones” actor Paul Bentley – demonstrate that opera doesn’t necessarily mean a formal dress code, let alone lyrics in a foreign language.

As for the future, the BLO aspires to build a permanent space that can better accommodate its forward planning and offers sufficient seats to meet demand. But even if it finds a permanent home, it will continue pop-up installations.

“We have a pretty good idea of what attracts audiences and what you want to be for the audience for the future,” says Ms. Nelson. “And so it actually allows us to be ahead rather than be burdened by a legacy from the past.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” will be performed May 5, 8, 10, and 12.

Editors note: This story has been updated to correct the wording of one of Bradley Vernatter's quotes and his title. 

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