The Commander enters the living room carrying a big black Bible. He reads Genesis 30:1-3 to his middle-aged wife and to Offred, her handmaid. The scripture finished, the wife and handmaid get on the floor, Offred sliding between the wife’s spread legs. The handmaid hikes up her skirt and leans back against the wife while the Commander unzips his trousers. They copulate. As they thrust and grind the orchestra and chorus burst into “Amazing Grace.”
This is act one, scene nine: the “Forepray” (sic) and “Ceremony” sections of Danish composer Poul Ruders’ opera, The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted from the novel by Margaret Atwood. At its first performances in Copenhagen in March 2000, the opera enthralled listeners (it was greeted with “foot-stomping and deafening euphoria”), gaining for the then fifty-one-year-old composer not only repeated performances in Copenhagen’s following season but an internationally released CD of the premiere (on the Dacapo label) and a Danish knighthood to boot. The CD was nominated for two Grammy Awards and in 2002 it received the Cannes Classical Award for the best work by a living composer. The English National Opera presented the work’s British premiere in London in April 2003, followed by the Minnesota Opera’s North American premiere in St. Paul in May. The critic for Time called the Danish performance “an exhilarating theatrical experience,” and the score “sumptuous” and “resplendent.” The Manchester Guardian called it “remarkable at every stage” and hailed Ruders as the “Richard Strauss of the computer-age orchestra.” In London the British Independent called it a “triumph.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune was ecstatic about the work’s St. Paul staging, an enthusiasm shared by USA Today.
Again and again critics commented on the timeliness of the opera. One writer observed the resonance between the opera and the attempt of a “religiously driven, if not quite fundamentalist U.S. government” to force a Pax Americana on Iraq. Another wrote, “It seems like a reflection on the daily news.” And Ruders himself has said, “We are in the time of [the opera] now. What Atwood wrote about is actually happening. I wouldn’t call [the story] science fiction; I prefer to call it science vision, and it’s frighteningly prophetic.” Anthony Tommasini, writing for the New York Times, concluded his enthusiastic review with the opinion that The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the few recent operas which the Metropolitan Opera “should feel obliged to present.”
Well, I feel obliged to protest. Ruders is certainly a skillful orchestrator, but his scores are no more colorful than those of two hundred or so other living composers. Moreover, the relationship between Ruders’ music and his libretto is superficial, and the story line of the opera is so convoluted as to be at times incomprehensible. And if it is a triumph, it is as the first work of art to displace Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine as the preeminent work of art calculated to offend Christian sensibilities.
Ruders (born in Ringsted, Denmark, in 1949) was trained as a church musician and organist at the Royal Danish Academy. He came to international attention when his first symphony, premiered by the BBC Orchestra, won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s 1990 Prize for the best large scale composition performed in London that year. Over a dozen of his works are now available on CD. When Ruders was approached by the Danish Opera commission, he insisted that Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel be the subject of his work. After convincing a skeptical Atwood of her novel’s theatric viability, he hired the British actor/writer Paul Bentley to provide the libretto.
Bentley’s libretto follows the general path of Atwood’s novel. Disasters have befallen the United States. Earthquakes along the Pacific Coast, accidents at nuclear power plants, pollution, epidemics, and war have plunged the country into chaos. The President, Vice President, the Cabinet, and Members of Congress have been assassinated by Christian fundamentalists who have established the “Bible-based” Republic of Gilead. The Republic has suspended the Constitution and outlawed abortion, divorce, and pornography. Women may not read, own property, or work outside the home. Because environmental factors have resulted in the sterilization of many women, those who are still fertile but who have been deemed by the Republic to have been immoral before the revolution (adulterers, divorcees, prostitutes, etc.), are enslaved in reeducation camps.
These women are the “handmaids.” The term comes from Genesis 30. There, Rachel, because she is barren, convinces Jacob to impregnate Rachel’s handmaid Bilah. Bilah bears first Dan and later Naphtali and the sons are adopted by Rachel, or “born upon her knees” as the Scripture phrases it. In Gilead, “handmaids” are assigned to breed with leaders of the Republic who have infertile wives, taking the name of their temporary assignments (the handmaid of the opera is known as Offred because she is “of Fred,” a Commander of Gilead).
Prior to the establishment of the Republic (which in the opera is called “the time before”), Offred had an affair with a man named Luke. Divorcing his wife, Luke married Offred and together they had a daughter. The couple senses their danger with the Republic’s establishment and tries to flee to Canada but are arrested at the border. Luke’s fate is unknown, but the daughter is taken by the Republic and given to new parents while Offred is assigned to the handmaids’ camp.
At the camp the handmaids are reeducated in the doctrine of Gilead (“thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not commit gender treachery [homosexuality], thou shalt not read or write,” and so forth). Offred is assigned to the Commander, whose wife, Serena Joy, a gospel singer in the time before, is barren. Each month the Commander and Offred ritually mate (as described above), but Offred fails to conceive. When an attending doctor offers to impregnate her himself, an act highly illegal but commonly practiced, Offred refuses. Relations between handmaids and their masters are restricted to the ritual matings, but the Commander wishes to have greater intimacy with Offred and clandestinely invites her to his private room, where they play Scrabble, read, and talk. Eventually the Commander takes her to “Jezebel’s,” a sex club reserved for the highest officials of the Republic (it happens to be in the same hotel where Offred had had her trysts with Luke in the time before).
Through other handmaids, Offred learns of a resistance movement and she is asked to join and provide the movement with information about the Commander. She refuses. Still not conceiving, Serena Joy bribes Offred into having sex with their handyman. This is a very dangerous act punishable by death, but Serena Joy gets Offred to agree by allowing her to see a photograph of her daughter. Offred and the handyman have sex.
Serena Joy discovers that the Commander has taken Offred to Jezebel’s and confronts the handmaid. Republic police burst on the scene and arrest the handmaid, although their leader signals to Offred that they are really members of the resistance there to take her to safety.
The story is told through the convention of an academic conference. The date is 2195, and a Professor Pieixoto of Cambridge University is presenting a paper at the “Twelfth Symposion on the Republic of Gilead.” He has discovered a series of cassette tapes on which a handmaid of the Republic has recorded the story of her life, or at least fragments of that story. The opera both begins and ends with the Professor delivering spoken monologues, given as if he were presenting a scholarly paper. Her tale is presented in a series of overlapping flashbacks. Scenes of Offred’s life in the reeducation center or with the Commander are mixed with scenes from the time before, sometimes the two times appearing simultaneously. The role of Offred herself is double cast, with a mezzo-soprano singing the Offred of the Republic and a lyric soprano singing the role of Offred in the time before.
Ruders’ musical idiom is typical of mainstream art composition today and is highly similar to the operatic work of Thomas Ades, William Bolcom, John Harbison, and John Adams. There are choruses for the handmaids in the reeducation center reminiscent of Orff and a male chorus of apparently highly erudite police who sing in Latin. The mezzo-soprano Offred has two set arias and Ruders includes a summary unison duet for both Offreds. As befits a governmental commission, Ruders was able to write for a large orchestra, his triple winds frequently doubling other instruments, his percussion expanded to five players, and the ensemble augmented by two electronic keyboard players.
Ruders uses all these musicians well. Certainly the opera’s greatest strength lies in its scoring, which is consistently colorful and never uninteresting. But problems arise almost immediately. Ruders has a tin ear for setting English to music. He has little sense of the idiomatic flow of the language, and because his music generally fights his words’ natural rhythms, the text becomes largely unintelligible despite his singers’ greatest efforts. And he has problems being lyrical. This seriously weakens what should have been the opera’s most important point, Offred’s one real moment alone on stage, when, after her examination by the doctor, she laments her failure to conceive and her life as a mere tool for propagation.
Yet there is one area in which Ruders’ opera is stunningly successful. The Handmaid’s Tale, both in Atwood’s novel and Ruders’ opera, is a sharp depiction of how the postmodernist left views conservative American Protestants, or “fundamentalists” (the left is typically a bit hazy on the taxonomy of religion). The Republic of Gilead—the invention of right-wing Christian fundamentalists—is a culture of robotic obedience, brute tyranny, sex slavery, torture, terrorism, sadism, and summary execution.
Although Atwood’s story is a fantasy, she seeks to give it a sense of plausibility by basing it upon real elements of American fundamentalism. But she gets almost all of these wrong. Most fundamentalists aren’t that interested in politics (much to the chagrin of some politicians). They are interested in the Rapture. Should cataclysmic disasters befall America, fundamentalists wouldn’t rise up and seize the government. They would most likely be in a deep crisis of faith, since according to their most popular understanding of biblical prophecy, calamities like that shouldn’t happen, or at least the saved shouldn’t be there to endure them.
Similarly out of joint is the notion that Rachel’s example in Genesis 30 would be taken by fundamentalists as justification for concubinage. Anybody who reads Scripture—and fundamentalists read quite a lot of it—knows that Rachel’s faithless desperation and Jacob’s complicity in it sets off a domestic disaster, eventually resulting in the attempted murder of Joseph. It isn’t a precedent to be followed. It’s one to be avoided. And the notion that fundamentalist women would ever let their men run roughshod over them in the way suggested by The Handmaid’s Tale shows that Atwood knows nothing about her subjects.
Which brings us to “Amazing Grace.” “Fundamentalists” don’t have icons. There are no hallowed images of miraculous origin or holy relics that serve as emblems of their faith. Instead, they have hymns. No hymn is more intimately connected with American fundamentalism than “Amazing Grace.” Everything about it—its “grace alone” text, its Calvinist tone, the echoes of Psalm 23 that resonate behind the words, the millenarianism of its anonymous fifth verse, its historic associations with the slave trade and John Newton’s own “born again” experience, even its “gapped note” scalar pattern which is so characteristic of Anglo-American folk songs and influences almost all branches of American music—all of this combines to give the hymn a unique place in conservative American Protestantism. I can honestly say that the hymn is my life, in sum and total. Tens of thousands, if not millions, of other American “fundamentalists” would say much the same.
Ruders uses the hymn several times. When Offred meets her lover in the hotel room in the time before, it’s heard on the radio being sung by Serena Joy. It’s heard again when Offred is taken by the Commander to the same room when the hotel is Jezebel’s. And it’s heard—the off-stage choir singing all four verses—when Offred and the Commander ritually mate. Ruders intends his audience to recognize the music as an important aspect of fundamentalist religion and to reinterpret it in his operatic context as an anthem of fraudulent piety and institutionalized rape.
To have your religion distorted and ridiculed and then to have one of your culture’s most deeply treasured expressions purposely profaned—well, it’s not very pleasant. And if you’re the type prone to feeling demeaned, it’s pretty demeaning. Some would go further, to call the opera—and not without justification—an example of “hate speech.”
Now, I think Ruders has every right to write whatever kind of opera he wants. And I think it’s the right of the Minnesota Opera to believe that Ruders’ opera “fits perfectly into all of [its] artistic goals” and thus to overlook dozens of much more important new operas (including several by resident Minnesota composers) in its favor. And should Marshall Fields—yes, the same folks who make those delightful windows at Christmas—choose to proudly sponsor the production (as they did), well they too have the right to encourage art about which they are enthusiastic. No one forced me to buy my ticket and I could have left the performance anytime I wanted. Free speech is free speech, no matter how hateful it might be.
Yet there’s something more troubling than Atwood’s and Ruders’, and apparently even Marshall Fields’, twisted view of fundamentalists. The real scandal that The Handmaid’s Tale lays bare is the left’s conviction that Christian fundamentalists lie outside the social contract of society. Norms of decency for dealing with other subcultures are apparently not applicable to treatment of fundamentalists. For the smart set, they are fair game. Diversity, tolerance, and respect for “the other” have boundaries. Christian fundamentalism can be found on the other side.
In a remarkable passage in the opera’s program, Dale Johnson, the Minnesota Opera’s artistic director, writes that he sees The Handmaid’s Tale as “a warning of the effects of intolerance in all its forms. Intolerance dehumanizes people, forcing their humanity underground. The best art holds up a mirror to its audience, and The Handmaid’s Tale does that brilliantly using the operatic genre.” His comments echo those of Atwood when describing her story as a work about “what happens when people condemn without understanding.” Precisely.
Michael Linton heads the division of composition and theory at the McClain School of Music at Middle Tennessee State University. His “Pietà” was premiered in July by the Bucharest Filarmonica.