The Breeders

Writing ditties about forced insemination: Danish composer Poul Ruders
Courtesy of The Minnesota Opera

If you tend to think of conductors as exacting taskmasters, quick to employ the cold stare and evil eye, Anthony Walker is a good one to defy your expectations. With stage director Eric Simonson looking on, Walker runs the singers through passages of the Minnesota Opera's North American premiere of The Handmaid's Tale that still need fine-tuning. He speaks with a lilting Australian accent, and is relaxed even when he spots a stray flat note or late entrance. "Okay," he says after finishing a section, "Let's go straight to the toilet."

I initially take this for an overly descriptive call for a break, but then realize it's just another scene, one of 40 in this atypically episodic opera. The bathroom scene is a tense exchange between the opera's heroine, Offred (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop), and her longtime friend Moira (soprano Karin Wolverton). Scored with urgency and splashes of dissonance, the scene finds Moira telling Offred of her plan to escape Gilead, the misogynistic theocracy established after a revolution overthrew the U.S government in the early 21st century.

The opera, which premiered at the Danish Royal Opera in March 2000, is by Danish composer Poul Ruders, with a libretto by English actor-singer-writer Paul Bentley. It's based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, which, like Brave New World or 1984, envisions a dehumanizing futuristic dystopia. In Gilead, biblical passages have been perverted to justify savage public executions and a rigid caste system for women. Offred is a Handmaid, a Giledean euphemism for "breeder." Nuclear accidents and other environmental disasters have made most of the population sterile, so fertile women such as Offred (of Fred) have been conscripted by Gilead elites to serve as surrogate mothers. (They conceive to the hymn "Amazing Grace" while lying on their mistresses' stomachs.) Offred's current post is her third; failure to conceive will mean her exile and assured death.

Like the novel, Bentley's libretto jumps between Gilead and the so-called Time Before. Ruders used strikingly different compositional tools to advance these two main strains of narrative, alternating between gentle lyricism and scabrous heaviness--an eerily transmogrified version of "Amazing Grace" accompanies the insemination ritual. "The music portraying [Gilead] is indeed bleak, often violent," explains the composer through e-mail, "whereas the soundscape of the former time is light, carefree, at times even naïve--let's say musical-ish."

Ruders, who is currently working on an operatic treatment of Kafka's The Trial, found that Atwood's novel translated easily to opera. "The underlying current of violence, perverted sex, betrayal, public executions, what have you, of course makes for great drama," he says. "But what really convinced me that I had top-drawer operatic material on my hands was the heartbreaking tenderness of the heroine Offred for her lost daughter."

The book was a reaction against Jerry Falwell-style fundamentalism and its fundamental antifeminism. But Simonson, who directed La Bohème for the Minnesota Opera in '96, says he thinks the story transcends Atwood's critique of the Christian right. "A year and a half ago when we were designing the show, September 11 had just happened, and religious fundamentalism meant something completely different," he says. "As we moved closer to the production, that didn't recede completely in the background, but suddenly you started to feel like there was another kind of oppression involved, something that was closer to home"--a reference to John Ashcroft-led attempts to put civil liberties in the toilet with our opening scene. One can imagine our gospel-singing crusader bristling at this moral critique--how sweet the sound.

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