In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Modern Opera, Contemporary Creators: Sitting Down with Actor, Writer & Librettist Paul Bentley

May 12, 2019 9:09:00 AM
By Richard Dyer

Bentley HS COLORPaul Bentley is the very model of a modern multi-purpose man.

He is an actor, an author, a singer, an historian and an opera-lover; his interests range from the Byzantine Empire to King Ludwig of Bavaria, to the 20th century scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In conversation he will burst into “Fair Moon To Thee I Sing” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore in voice still steady and clear and even touch on the Forging Song from Wagner’s Siegfried, complete with pitch-perfect high C. He will tell you that his principal regret in life is that he was not endowed with the kind of voice with which he could have performed all the principal Wagnerian Heldentenor roles.

Bentley was in town last weekend for the Boston Lyric Opera’s triumphant production of Poul Ruders’s operatic adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale because he wrote the libretto almost 20 years ago. On Saturday afternoon he descended to the bleak, drafty and noisy lobby of his hotel in order to talk about some of the facts and facets of his life. He’s informal but elegant – his next stop is at a radio station for a panel discussion of the opera. His flexible face can take on the character of whatever he happens to be talking about; that’s what actors can do.

Bentley in Game of ThronesHe’s been onstage for more than half a century – he’s now 77 – and he has learned how to hold the attention of the public, even an “audience” of one interviewer. He has had to wait until the last few years to reach a worldwide audience of millions, but he did it recently in several episodes of Game of Thrones in seasons 3-5. He is no longer in the series because, as he puts it, “My character is very dead indeed. I played the High Septon, a figure in writer George R. R. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms who is like the Pope. My costume was an acre of white cheesecloth and after I was found in a brothel, I was stripped naked, thrown to chanting crowds and led to my death. This was my first nude scene – 50 years too late,” he laments. His episodes were filmed in Belfast and in Dubrovnik in Croatia, and he clearly had the time of his life. “The DVDs do not exist in my family – my daughter, who is the manager of a London theater, refuses to watch these episodes because she says, ‘Once seen, never forgotten.’”

The libretto for The Handmaid’s Tale is one of Bentley’s major achievements and it came about because of a long friendship with the opera administrator Elaine Padmore – Bentley and Padmore had been students together back in the 1960s. When composer Paul Ruders said he wanted a complete theater professional to write the libretto, Padmore thought of her old pal and called him up and encouraged him to “have a look” at Atwood’s book, which he had never read – this was in 1993. “I read it and realized immediately that it was an incredibly moving masterpiece. But it was not in chronological order, so the first thing I needed to do is establish one – I did the same thing years before when I wrote a musical based on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice that we did during the Edinburgh Festival. In the book, we learn everything through the experience and words of the main character, the Handmaid Offred. But I needed to put all of the events on the stage rather than have Offred narrate them – otherwise it would be a monologue rather than an opera.”

There was also the built-in problem is that the book unfolds in two different periods – the present in the oppressive male-dominated state of Gilead and the past, the Time Before, when Offred had led a normal contemporary American life with a husband and a daughter. This was a problem with the movie of the novel; Natasha Richardson, who played Offred, portrayed a character who was never allowed to speak her mind and who always needed to conceal her feelings. The original script called for voice overs, where Offred could reveal her thoughts, but these were eliminated by the time the movie was made and Richardson complained about being left in the position of hiding what she thought and felt from nearly everyone else in the movie while simultaneously communicating all of it to the audience.

Bentley ingeniously worked around that and created a strikingly symmetrical design of scenes that flow easily and inevitably from the present into the past and back again. His stroke of genius was to create roles for two Offreds, one from Time Before and one in the present. No need for quick costume changes. He even created a duet for the two of them that drew from Ruders the most deeply expressive and haunting music in the score. Margaret Atwood was not directly involved in Bentley’s work, although he used as much of the novel’s language as he could, and he is proud that when she attended the production in Toronto, she turned to him after the end and said “Bravo.”

His collaboration with Ruders was a happy one and Bentley later wrote a book about it, The Handmaid’s Diary, which traces the opera from the first phone call to the opening night. Later the two men went on to create another successful work, Kafka’s Trial, which is at once an operatic version of Kafka’s novel The Trial and an opera about Kafka’s complicated personal life when he was writing the novel – the two stories run in parallel.

Bentley has since produced librettos for three other composers, and has recently completed second libretto for Ana Sokolovic. He has also written a novel set in the Byzantine empire, a play about Teilhard’s conflicts with the Catholic hierarchy, a speculative radio play about an imaginary meeting between Jane Austen and Lord Byron [!], and much more.

 Through all of this he has continued his considerable career on the stage which included five years in sold-out musicals in London – Follies, Cats, Lend Me A Tenor, and Aspects of Love. These days he makes annual appearances in Christmas pantos, but mostly concentrates on writing and on editing websites on Chardin and modern mosaics. Whenever he gets a moment he creates a few more lines in his ongoing project to translate Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval romance Parzifal. “Wolfram wrote it in 25,000 rhyming couplets. Others have translated it into English, but in prose. I believe that T. S Eliot was right when he wrote that the only to translate a poem is to do so within the same form in which it was originally written, so my translation is in rhymed couplets.”

And lifelong passions continue. He considers his trip to Bayreuth for the Wagner Festival in 1966 as the highpoint in his experience of opera and Wieland Wagner’s production of Parsifal in particular as the greatest theatrical event of his life. His detailed description of the pillars and pools of light in two scenes made this listener feel as if he had seen and them too. And after the stupendous ovation at the close of the opening matinee of BLO’s production of The Handmaid’s Tale, he confessed he and his wife were going to New York the next day to see Wagner’s Die Götterdämerung at the Met. I’d give anything to learn what he thought of the infamous Machine...


RICHARD DYER is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for more than 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.


Learn more about The Handmaid's Tale, May 5-12, 2019:


Images (top to bottom): Paul Bentley, headshot; Bentley as the High Septon on Game of Thrones.

Topics: Dissenters & Rebels, 2018/19 Season, #handmaidsBLO, Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, Contemporary Creators

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