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Opera Handmaid's Tale makes U.S. premiere
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Elizabeth Bishop is Offred, the title character in The Minnesota Opera's North American premiere production, The Handmaid's Tale. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Opera)
The Minnesota Opera presents the North American premiere of The Handmaid's Tale. Based on Margaret Atwood's novel, the opera tells of a world where religion is used to justify political agendas, and women are stripped of their rights. Attwood wrote the story almost 20 years ago, long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Yet Atwood says some of its plot twists bear a disquieting similarity to more recent events.

St. Paul, Minn. — Danish composer Poul Ruders says he heard music the first time he read The Handmaid's Tale. Long, sustained, towering chords, slowly becoming louder and louder. It was music he'd already written for another piece, but it felt perfectly suited to the novel's dark and oppressive story. As Ruders continued to read, he became convinced he should write it as an opera.

"To me it's so well suited, because of the inherent drama," says Ruders. "It's packed with human emotions. Opera is to me about relationships between human beings -- love and hate, quite simply, hope and betrayal."

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Image Offred and the Commander

Ruders contacted author Margaret Atwood. He told her he had to write an opera and it had to be based on the Handmaid's Tale. He said if he didn't, he'd never write an opera again. Atwood gave the go-ahead, despite reservations.

"Opera -- when it succeeds can be wonderful, but when it fails it can be ludicrous," Atwood laughs. "It's always a risk."

Ruders found a librettist, and got to work. Several years later, in March 2000, the opera had its world premiere in Copenhagen. Atwood was there.

"It was really quite shocking to me to see it," says Atwood. "It's a powerful piece. There aren't a lot of hoppity-skippity moments in it. It's pretty forceful, sort of like somebody gripping you by the back of the neck."

It's hard to imagine how anything based on Atwood's book could have "hoppity-skippity moments." Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale in 1984 as a warning to the world. She compiled the story from actual events.

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Image Offred and her daughter

It portrays a bleak society in a world where pollution has rendered most women infertile. A religious cult takes over the American government and uses biblical Scripture to justify its own warped ends. It revokes all women's rights. Those women who are still fertile become baby machines for those in command -- they're called Handmaids. They lose their own names. Instead they're named for the men who own them. The main character is called Offred.

The opera does not attempt to tone down Atwood's vision. There are images of the White House exploding, women are forced to look at pornography in order to appreciate their new-found security, and Offred has both sex and a gynecological exam on stage. Mezzo Soprano Elizabeth Bishop sings the part of Offred. She was pregnant with her first child while learning the role.

"There's one scene where one of the characters gives birth on stage and they've take the woman -- the handmaid who just had the baby -- and she's dumped over on the side of the stage like a piece of garbage. And she's absolutely forgotten," says Bishop. "It's almost as if they peel her from around this child and discard her like a peeling, and it's very heartrending."

Perhaps even more heartwrenching for Bishop is the opera's use of the song Amazing Grace. In the new world order the hymn has become the national anthem. It's played as Offred is being forced to have sex with the Commander, her hands held back by his own wife.

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Image Offred in the "Time Before"

"It's awful!" Bishop laughs. "To be watching this systematic rape go on with Amazing Grace in the background. To put this hymn that is so close to ... American Christianity. It's so close to the heart to so many people, and then to have it taken and put in this wretched context is going to be very jolting."

Bishop says despite the brutal nature of the opera, she's thrilled to perform in it. She compares Offred's story to the many tragic female characters from other operas, each full of sex and violence in their own way.

Bishop says she was fascinated by The Handmaid's Tale when she first read it years ago. She stresses though, that to her, it's just a story.

"Ms. Atwood, while she's a marvelous novelist, she's not Nostradamus. So I don't see this as a prediction of the future or as a warning about the future, because it assumes some extraordinary things have to take place first," says Bishop. "I can suspend my disbelief long enough to really get into the whole thing. But do I think this is really going to happen? Absolutely not."

Atwood says back in 1984 she herself postulated the story could never come to pass, because it would require a series of extreme events. In her book it was the blowing up of the White House, Congress and the Statue of Liberty. Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and President Bush created the office of Homeland Security.

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Image Aunt Lydia

"Once you get secrecy into a country on that order -- once you make it possible to go through everybody's records without them knowing and into their house without knowing, whisk them away without knowing -- you're right back into the star chamber and the Bastille and the Inquisition and Stalinist Russia, it's too much of a temptation," says Atwood. "There's no controls, and it always comes in by people who say they're doing it for your own good. It always is that way - they wouldn't say they're doing it for your own BAD," Atwood chuckles.

Atwood is now on tour promoting her latest novel, Oryx and Crake. It's yet another cautionary tale, this time focusing on the possible results of scientists playing God with nature. Atwood says she's not a pessimist, but a realist. She says she knows mankind well enough to know it's capable of both great harm and great kindness.

"If I were a betting person, I don't know which side to bet on right now, I really don't," says Atwood. "But we do have both possibilities. It's not that we are doomed to be awful and horrible by our very natures. We're not doomed in that way - we have a choice."

The Minnesota Opera performs The Handmaid's Tale, based on Margaret Atwood's novel, through May 18.

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