The Handmaid's Tale is an opera composed by the Danish composer Poul Ruders, to a libretto by Paul Bentley based on the novel of the same name written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood.
The opera is set in the United States in the early 21st Century, where a series of political, military and ecological disasters have led to the formation of a theocratic Protestant fundamentalist dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead. Political and religious dissidents such as Roman Catholics, Jews, Quakers, feminists, homosexuals and abortionists and live in daily fear of deportation to a gulag of labour camps or even public execution.
The opera follows the story of Offred, who having tried to flee from Gilead has been sentenced to become a Handmaid - a surrogate mother for a high-ranking couple suffering from fertility problems. Offred, an intelligent woman who worked as an academic librarian before the revolution finds the dullness of life as a Handmaid stultifying and considers suicide. On her third posting, she risks being deported to a labour camp cleaning radioactive waste if she fails to conceive.
She has unapproved of relationships both with the 'Commander' whose children she is tasked to bear, and with the handyman in the house in which she is posted. Through another Handmaid, she makes contact with the underground resistance. After her contact disappears, she is under threat of discovery, however the handyman is also a member of the resistance and manages to smuggle her away on the underground railroad.
At the end of the opera, it is learned that the tape on which her story is revealed was retold in a safe house within Gilead. The success or failure of her attempt to flee to Canada is therefore unknown.
While the opera's plot is derived quite directly from the novel, the two are not precisely the same. Although the framework of events is similar, the characters have subtly different personalities. Perhaps most notably, the character of the Commander is noticeably softer in the opera than in the book, while Offred's relationship in the handyman Nick is more tender in the book than in the opera.
The time constraints of opera meant that some dramatic shortcuts had to be used to explain, for example, the theological and political dogma of Gilead, which the novel had considerable space to develop. As a consequence, there are a number of scenes in the opera which did not appear in the novel. For example Offred's confession in the 'Red Centre' where handmaids are trained to having had an abortion at the age of 14 has no parallel in the novel.
The opera is written in a free tonal style, with clear influences from the operas of Alban Berg and from minimalism. The musical style is narrative rather than lyric, with nothing that could reasonably be described as an aria and only a few trios and quartets.
Much of the rather haunting atmosphere is built from the repetitive, chanting, choruses of the handmaids.
Performances and recordings
The opera was premiered in Copenhagen in March 2000 by the Danish Royal Opera and subsequently recorded by the same company, currently the only recording of the opera in the catalogue.
Its first performance outside Denmark was by the English National Opera in London's Coliseum Theatre on 3 April 2003. Its North American premiere was performed by the Minnesota Opera in May 2003.
Critical reception to the opera's early performances was mixed and occasionally hostile — while the power of Atwood's story and skill of Bentley's libretto was recognised, many critics felt that the vocal writing was characterless, and for many female characters too shrill and highly pitched to allow for proper diction, while the orchestral writing was judged by many to be bombastic. Others praised Ruders for his composition's sympathy to the spirit of the novel.
Both the first Copenhagen and London seasons were successes with the opera-going publics with both houses consistently selling out.
The Handmaid's Tale is often inaccurately reported to have been composed for a Danish libretto. In fact, Paul Bentley completed the English libretto before Ruders began to compose the opera, and it was to this libretto that Ruders wrote the score. Since the Danish Royal Opera has a policy of performing all works in Danish translation, Ruders translated the libretto into Danish at the same time as he wrote the opera, but he has repeatedly made clear that English is the 'authoritative' language for performances of The Handmaid's Tale.