The Handmaid's Tale (opera)

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The Handmaid's Tale is an opera composed by the Danish composer Poul Ruders in 2000, to a libretto by Paul Bentley based on the novel of the same name written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood.



In AD 2195, the 12th Symposium on the Republic of Gilead is meeting via videoconference. The Republic was formed after Christian fundamentalists assassinated the President and most of the Congress in order to establish a dictatorship based on Biblical principles within the United States. Women in the Republic have no suffrage, right to work, right to education, or right to property. Women who live in sin are taken to Red Centres where they are indoctrinated as Handmaids by Aunts. The Handmaids are sent to barren households, where they are required to be ritually inseminated once a month. Professor Pieixoto introduces an audio-cassette recorded by a Handmaid who is in hiding. She had been taken from her second husband Luke and their daughter.

The Red Centre Prelude

The centre is run by Aunt Lydia. Moira, a friend of the Handmaid who recorded the tape, is captured after an escape attempt. Janine, another woman at the Centre, suffers a breakdown. Moira eventually manages to escape while other Handmaids graduate from the Centre.

Act One

The Handmaid is assigned to a new posting under the command of Fred. She is therefore known as Offred (Of Fred). The wife of the household is Serena Joy, a former Gospel singer. Offred and Ofglen, another Handmaid, go shopping where they encounter the pregnant Janine. A doctor offers to impregnate Offred, but she declines in fear. At her new posting, the handyman Nick and Fred both have illegal contact with Offred when they talk to her and approach her bedroom. The household gathers for the ritual impregnation, and Nick tells Offred that Fred wants to see her privately afterwards, which is also illegal.

The next day, the birth of Janine's child prompts all the Wives and Handmaids of the district to gather in celebration. Offred visits Fred that night in private, and once she is back in her bedroom, she collapses in fit of hysterical laughter.

Act Two

Rita discovers Offred the next morning on the floor of her room. Offred visits Fred again in private, and during their next ritual, he caresses Offred. She fears that Serena Joy will notice the tender gesture. During another round of shopping, Offred and Ofglen confide that they are both breaking the law, as Ofglen talks about the resistance movement. Janine joins them before breaking down again, as a result of the execution of her defective child. Janine is taken off for execution.

Offred continues to see Fred privately. Serena Joy tries to bribe Offred into a union with Nick by showing her a photo of Offred's missing daughter. Offred and Nick begin an affair. At a public execution, the Handmaids are given the opportunity to hang a 'rapist', who is part of the underground. Ofglen kicks him into unconsciousness in order to spare him the pain of hanging. Meanwhile, Serena Joy discovers Offred's affair with Fred. The "Eyes of God", the secret police, arrest Offred.


Professor Pieixoto reveals that no one knows what happened to Offred.[1]


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. There is however a beautiful and moving duet for the heroine and her double.

Much of the rather haunting atmosphere is built from the repetitive, chanting, choruses of the handmaids.[citation needed]

Performances and recordings[edit]

The opera was premiered in Copenhagen on 6 March 2000 by the Danish Royal Opera, conductor Michael Schonwandt, director Phyllida Lloyd, designer Peter McKintosh. It was subsequently recorded by the same company by Dacapo, currently the only recording of the opera in the catalogue.

This production transferred to the English National Opera in London's Coliseum Theatre on 3 April 2003. The opera's North American premiere was performed by the Minnesota Opera in May 2003, in a new production, conducted by Anthony Walker, director Eric Simonson, designer Robert Israel. The Danish Royal Opera production transferred to Toronto, Margaret Atwood's home town, on 23 September 2004.

Boston Lyric Opera mounted a production in May 2019, conducted by BLO Music Director David Angus.[2]

Critical reception[edit]

Critical reception to the opera's Copenhagen world premiere was almost uniformly positive (e.g. "Add The Handmaid's Tale to the list of recent works that the Metropolitan Opera should feel obliged to present" - New York Times). In London the reviews were mixed and many hostile. While the power of Atwood's story and skill of Bentley's libretto were recognised, some critics felt that the vocal writing was characterless and for some female characters too shrill and highly pitched to allow for proper diction, while the orchestral writing was judged by some to be bombastic. Others praised Ruders for his composition's sympathy to the spirit of the novel. The Minnesota and Toronto premieres were widely praised by the critics (e.g. "This well-conceived production restores confidence in the possibilities of contemporary opera as compelling theater" - USA Today).

Both the first Copenhagen and London seasons, and the later productions in America and Canada, were successes with the opera-going public, with houses consistently selling out.


The Handmaid's Tale was from the beginning composed for Paul Bentley's English libretto alongside Ruders' Danish translation of the libretto. The Danish title was Tjenerindens fortælling.

The Danish Royal Opera who commissioned the work wanted the opera performed in Danish, but performances outside Denmark have all been sung in English.


  1. ^ Bentley, Paul. "Synopsis", The Handmaid's Tale. Dacapo, Copenhagen. 2000.
  2. ^ Allen, David (2019-05-10). "Review: 'The Handmaid's Tale' Is a Brutal Triumph as Opera". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-05-11.
  • Programme for the 2003 London performances of The Handmaid's Tale.
  • A Handmaid's Diary by Paul Bentley, librettist, pub. Edition Wilhelm Hansen 2004

External links[edit]