On today’s date in 2000, the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen gave the premiere of a new opera, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on a novel of the same name by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood.
The book and opera tell of a nightmarish future: following a nuclear disaster in the United States, infertility rates have soared, and a religious sect has staged a military coup, enslaving the few fertile women who remain as breeders, or “handmaids,” for the military and religious commanders of their sect. Says Atwood, "There is nothing new about the society I depicted in The Handmaid's Tale except the time and place. All of the things I have written about have been done before—more than once, in fact."
Despite its grim subject matter, Danish composer Poul Ruders says he saw "huge operatic potential" when he first read the book back in 1992. The heroine of his opera, a handmaid named “Offred,” can still remember life before the disaster, and, through a series of flashbacks and monologues, recounts a tale of hope and suffering—emotions not foreign to many other classic operas of the past.
The original production in Copenhagen was sung in Danish, but Ruders says he conceived the work in English. The opera was staged in that language first in London at the English National Opera, and subsequently, at the opera’s American premiere, in St. Paul by the Minnesota Opera, to great critical acclaim.