When director Anne Bogart tells people her next project is an opera adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she gets the same response nearly every time.
“They sort of nod their heads as their eyes go wide and their faces change color,” Bogart said ahead of the Boston Lyric Opera production opening May 5. “I don’t have to explain to anyone why I’m doing it or why it’s the right time for this adaptation. Everybody knows.”
With many feeling they already live in a dystopian nightmare, the BLO looks to capture the zeitgeist with an epic take on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, which Hulu has also transformed into an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning TV series. For those unfamiliar with the novel, opera and TV show, “The Handmaid’s Tale” takes place in a near-future in which a patriarchal theocracy has overthrown the U.S. government and made women completely subservient to men. The BLO production updates a 2000 adaptation with a new edition commissioned from original composer Poul Ruders.
The opera company has never taken on a production like this. The legendary director will lead the huge cast — 40 choir members alone — through the piece at Harvard’s Ray Lavietes Pavilion.
“It’s immense, so big and so massive, if everybody in the crew and cast didn’t put so much work in so early, we couldn’t do it,” Bogart said. “The next thing I am working on is ‘Tristan & Isolde,’ where three things happen in five hours. With this, there is so much action, something cataclysmic happens on stage every three or four minutes.”
If the venue surprised you, it should. Forgoing expected spaces such as the Opera House or Wang Theater, the BLO picked a cavernous Harvard gymnasium to mount the show in. Bogart thinks the Lavietes Pavilion perfectly fits the opera.
“It’s the second oldest gym in the country and is remarkably like the Red Center,” she said referring to the building where Handmaids are housed and trained. “But it does create complications. Just now someone [on the production team] has been trying to figure out how to overcome acoustic issues that come up when you bring an opera into a space like this. It’s new for all of us.”
Bogart thinks challenges make theater worthwhile — taking risks and having the audience take them with you. She says that’s what has been happening for centuries. The last show she directed, Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” premiered in 405 B.C. She also says theater remains unique for what it asks.
“What distinguishes theater is the question of, ‘How are we getting along?’ ” she said. “It could be a play in Thebes, which is a mess because Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, or it could be ‘Death of a Salesman.’ They are all asking the same question.”
“It’s a question asked again in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ which is more relevant that it has even been,” she added.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” May 5, 8, 10 and 12, at the Ray Lavietes Pavilion, Harvard University, Cambridge. Tickets: $25-$182; blo.org.