Chris Garrard is a composer currently working in Oxford; his new chamber opera, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, based on Margaret Atwood’s best-selling novel of the same name, is being premiered later this month. I spoke to him about the creative process behind the project.
For anyone who’s not read the book, what’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ about?
I don’t want to give away too much, but basically it’s about a fictitious society set somewhere in the future. They’ve redesigned the whole of society based around a short chunk of the New Testament, while using various parts of the Old Testament in a weird fundamentalist way… Their underlying principle is [to] divide people into different social groups with very specific roles, one of which is the Handmaid. They are effectively surrogate mothers and are very much objectified. There are allusions as to why this has to be the case; perhaps to repopulate society after an outbreak of a virus, but we’re never really told about that. It’s about how the different power relations play out between these different groups.
What drew you to the text?
I had to study it for A level English years ago. I was 17 or 18 when I read it and it was a very powerful book to read because at that age you don’t read much that is that overtly political, maybe slightly feminist. Then years later I thought it lent itself really well to music theatre. Someone else has already done an opera, a composer called Poul Ruders, which I’ve not listened to but I’ve heard it’s a more conventional contemporary opera.
Is yours an ‘unconventional’ contemporary opera?
It’s called a new chamber opera because I think people will recognise it as that, but I think we’ve created something. I’m not entirely sure what it is that we’ve created! I always had in mind that it wouldn’t fit neatly into one particular box, because I think there are different qualities, energies, and tones to different types of music and theatre … I’m nowhere near achieving that or pulling it off, but I think it’s interesting to try and achieve a synthesis and combination of all these different things.
In the book a lot of the background to the story is particularly ambiguous – how have you translated this to stage?
I have worked on things with a vague sense of how it might work on stage; I was a bit more wedded to some ideas than others. We’ve been working with Loré Lixenberg, a professional director; she has directed in part but also coordinated, and we’ve taken ideas from the cast as well. A really interesting thing that we’ve all noticed a little bit is that if we’ve taken a scene and idea that doesn’t feel quite right and we’ve all looked at it, the solution that seems to be the right one is what is consistent with the text, even details that you might have forgotten about from when you read the book. It makes musical and theatrical sense to follow what the book is trying to do. That’s the ambition, I think – to be true to the essence of the book, perhaps, over the content. The structure of the book is ambiguous and we don’t get a clear narrative arc, we gradually accumulate information from different kinds of expression from the protagonist, Offred (the Handmaid). Sometimes she is quite clear-minded, sometimes she has an internal dialogue with herself. We don’t really have any stability, even in the book we don’t have any clarity. We know some kind of story has happened, and you get some kind of filling in of gaps, but the consequence of this is that we’re trying to stay true to the fragmentary and non-linear style of the book. But that can be a little high risk because when you read the book you spend some time being a little confused.
The protagonist would be so lost in this slightly dystopian world – are you trying to convey that sense of disjointed confusion to the audience?
Again it comes back to this idea of being committed and true to the text. It’s a very coherent book in complex layers. At various points there is an urge to fill in the gaps, or feel that we need to force it into a storyline, which we could do and would be valid, but we’ve chosen a slightly different way. Then again you could be more radical, more non-linear than we might be attempting to be, so I suppose by many standards we’re probably quite tame.
Has the opera changed much since you’ve started working with the cast; have you had to adapt certain aspects?
Yes – it depends on which aspects. It’s scored with a combination of notated things that you can read from left to right, some recitative ideas; then things which are more like theatrical moments, improvisatory moments, and some things which are electronic. It’s quite a flexible structure, and the cast have brought their ideas to that, about how things could be staged. Loré has a very vivid imagination for how things can be staged; it’s an amalgamation of these different things. We’ve had a few days where sadly Lore wasn’t with us but then we’ve tried things out as a group. I’ve been thinking about this and working on this for quite a while and as such you can end up a bit saturated, you need a fresh pair of eyes on something. If you have a group of 12 good musicians, performers, dancers, actors – you should use them, they probably know more than I do!
The way you’ve put together the opera – is there a parallel in contemporary opera, or anything like it?
Nothing is truly original, is it? I’m sure someone somewhere has done something like it, but I feel like we have something unique, and a quirky collection of material. I don’t think it’s life-changing, we’re not trying to be – it’s part of a process, an experiment… We’re playing with ideas and that’s how you discover things. There’s not a particular academic or intellectual framework for doing it in this way. When I go to new music concerts you’re exposed to a lot of the same thing very quickly and you get desensitized to it and don’t appreciate the quality of it. This opera, hopefully, keeps fairly light on its feet. I talk about them as different tonalities, some writers use the word colours, but we’re moving around them to keep people on their toes… Even if people aren’t comfortable with it there might be something they can identify or connect with.
Has your approach to the text been significantly influenced by your own political campaigning?
I don’t think so. When I read it and was struck by the book it was probably an underlying thing because I was studying politics at the same time as well but I didn’t put it in that specific box. There’s so much in the book; there’s a wall that they hang people from, which has resonance with the Berlin Wall, and Margaret Atwood makes this point that in the book nothing is unique to this fictitious society, she’s just borrowed methods of oppression from things that we see. There was a point – I’ve done a few pieces that are more spoken – but the book is very coherent and clear so you don’t need to spell it out for people. If you’re a little more cryptic about things people can take from it what they want and I always think that if you want to engage with any political dimension you need that degree of openness… Your audience have ownership of it. If you preach then you’ve told them what to think.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
On the 7th March one of my orchestral pieces, Broken Thumbs, is being played by Oxford Philomusica. It’s a piece about a UN climate conference, and that’s in a concert with Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. We also have the M@SH Marathon on the 26th January… This is the third one; the ethos behind the marathon is that it is free and that everyone can come along. You’re welcome to come along and hate something, and love something else. It’s meant to be honest and open about a whole range of music and music-making. It’s mainly new music but there are all sorts of interesting cross-overs between genres. In that vein we have, amongst others; a folk harpist, a group of improvisers, an ensemble called Nue, M@SH ensemble, Ann Ryan who does improvised vocals and theatrical performances, Trevor Wishart who’s premiering a new electroacoustic piece which is done using scientific data about stars, an ensemble from Durham University, Oxford University Gamelan, someone who does sound and light sculpture, and OXLork (The Oxford Laptop Orchestra) will also be performing a few pieces… It’s going to be a long evening, the bar will definitely be open! … A group in New York called Bang on a Can, where the idea of doing a Marathon came from, did a concert that was 12 hours long so this is nothing – this is only 5 hours. But as I say it’s completely free and a lovely thing to do because the people who are performing are those who want to be there and enjoy making music and sharing it with people.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ will be running at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building from the 18th-19th January. Tickets are available at £5 each for the 17.00 performance on Friday the 18th, and for the 14.30 performance on Saturday the 19th. To reserve tickets please email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Facebook event or page. To find out more about Chris and his work please visit his website.