Focus on…new opera

Next week, Oxford music students take to the stage in a performance of a newly written opera based on Margaret Atwood’s hit novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Chris Garrard, music postgraduate and the composer of the piece, explains what this project is all about.

Who is involved in the opera?
For the most part it will be performed by music undergraduates taking a module in Opera and Music Theatre. However, there are other people helping out in other ways, so it is a very much a production in its own right too! It is also being directed by highly acclaimed soprano and director Lore Lixenberg.

Can audiences expect a literal retelling of The Handmaid’s Tale story?
The book jumps between different places and points in time and so it takes some time to piece the story together as you read it. Performing it word for word would take a long time. This production will be a version of the original story, trying to stay true to the spirit and essence of Margaret Atwood’s text. That said, music and theatre have a unique way of getting under the skin of a story and exploring a dimension we might not have engaged with before.

This piece is being devised in the two weeks running up to the performances. How has this influenced your composing?
I have had ideas for the piece for some time but I wanted to allow space for new ideas and approaches. With that in mind, I have composed different kinds of material. Some pieces are more extended and fixed while others are more flexible and improvisatory. The result is a general structure and shape but with plenty of room for reinterpretation by the director and
performers.

Two weeks isn’t long to create and rehearse an entire opera. Will it be ready in time?
Nearly all performances in previous Opera & Music Theatre courses have been put together in a short space of time. It is very ambitious and strenuous to work on this kind of timescale, but it does have several advantages. The cast and those involved have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the production, to live and breathe it for a week or two (although that maysound like a cliché!) The result can be a more raw and direct performance.

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Who have been your main influences in the
composition of this opera?
I find it hard to focus myself on any one way of working or doing things. At times, Samuel Beckett’s plays were on my mind and at other times, some of Philip Glass’s music. There are a whole host of flavours from minimalist music, performance art, avant-garde theatre, folk music and electronic music that have been floating around my head. I have seen performances which Lore, our director, has put on before. Her style and approach has also been in the back of my mind when working on material.

Who do you think will appreciate this production
and why?
My hope is that anyone can appreciate this production or find something in it that speaks to them. There might be aspects that are familiar or reassuring,
and parts which are new or unsettling. Those that know Atwood’s book, who enjoy a powerful story or appreciate different flavours of music and theatre will hopefully appreciate this production.

The Handmaid’s Tale is being performed at the
Jacqueline du Pré Music Building on 18th – 19th
January.
Ticket enquiries: oxfordhandmaid@gmail.com.