‘Multiplicity Is Actually Strength’: Margaret Atwood and Poul Ruders Reflect On Retelling ‘The Handmaid's Tale’ Through Opera

Author Margaret Atwood and composer Poul Ruders introduced the opera production of “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Boston with a conversation on May 4 at WBUR’s CitySpace. The opera was first staged in 2000 in Copenhagen, but its May 5 to 11 run staged by the Boston Lyric Opera at Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion marked its Boston premiere. Atwood offered context behind the central themes of the production, particularly those of political control and female subjugation. Ruders explained why these messages translated well to music, and performers presented a sample of the work.

The premise for “The Handmaid’s Tale” is rooted in a dystopian near-future, where the United States has collapsed to a totalitarian Christian theocracy called Gilead. Key themes include the subjugation of women and the structure of totalitarian societies. The conversation explored the real life inspiration behind these themes, and, with audio clips of segments of the production and live performances, explained how the adaptation of the acclaimed novel into an opera can shed a unique perspective on the much-adapted source material (“The Handmaid’s Tale” is the subject of a motion picture and a television series currently airing on Hulu).

When asked why the themes in “The Handmaid’s Tale” resonate with a modern audience, Atwood commented on the efficacy of building a world that was believable.

"There’s nothing within the book that hasn’t already happened somewhere in real life or for which we don’t have the technology,” she said.

Atwood penned the novel (first published in 1985) while living in West Berlin at the height of the Cold War, where the stark contrast between life on either side of the Iron Curtain served as some inspiration for the creation of the totalitarian state of Gilead. After the first film (of the same name) was screened in East Germany, Atwood commented on the country's response as a testament to the brutal reality of living in a totalitarianism system. “They watched very intently and afterwards they said, ‘This was our life.’ You had the feeling that you could not, that you did not know who to trust.”


Ruders commented on how his score serves to realize Atwood’s thematic vision into sound.

“What music can do is to add the extra dimension,” he said. One example of this was the use of music to distinguish between the main narrative, set in Gilead, and flashbacks, set in the contemporary U.S. “In the time before, music is easygoing. I use a watermark — three chords — which distinguish a shift in time.”

Atwood elaborated on Ruders’s comments, suggesting that opera was also a unique medium in effectively depicting thought from her characters.

“How do you present speech for people who aren’t allowed to speak? In the first film, the director initially put voice over but he took it out, which I thought was a mistake. Conventions in opera allow for people on stage to sing and talk without others on stage knowing,” Atwood said.

Paul Bentley, the opera’s librettist, was also in attendance at the conversation. He gave insight into the style of music in the opera and the power of live music, contrasting it from the effects of music in the Hulu TV show.

“I watched the first episode on television, and very quickly, I was missing the music that wasn't nearly as powerful on television as you get in the opera house because the stupendous orchestration and orchestra wasn't there.,” Bentley said. “I would put as many types of music as I possibly can within the opera. Poul's music does this time and time again.”

As the conversation drew to a close, pianist Nathan Salazar and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who plays protagonist Offred in the production, performed an aria, which Atwood jokingly referred to as the “only aria in opera to be sung about the menstrual cycle.” Atwood commented on how the sample performance encapsulated some of the key themes in her work. “It's a lamenting feeling of being divorced from her body; her body has become a source of distress for her,” Atwood said.

Atwood’s parting words embodied hope for the new generation of opera-goers.

“Young people don’t usually go to the opera, who may never have gone to the opera before,” Atwood said. “What I’m happy about right now is the generations of, let’s say, under 25, particularly the ones who have become articulate about gun control and the extinction resistance which is now sweeping through high schools and colleges. It’s going to be harder to do totalitarianism here, partly because it’s so diverse. You can’t just get hold of one demographic of the people and convince them all to do your will. Multiplicity is actually strength under these conditions.”

Staff Writer Lanz Aaron G. Tan can be reached at