Interview with Poul Ruders and Dale Johnson
An overthrown government. Suspended civil liberties. A new fundamentalist regime that determines reproductive rights and bans women from reading, writing, and holding jobs. A society where the line between government and God is blurred into one all-knowing, all-seeing, all-controlling entity ...
This is the dark backdrop of Poul Ruders' opera The Handmaid's Tale, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. The world Atwood set out to create was inspired by real events from human history—the attempt of the American Puritans to establish a theocracy, the abortion debate, the presence of fundamentalist regimes—about which she has some clear opinions. Says Atwood, "The thing to remember is that there is nothing new about the society 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." And so, what may have started out as a satire may also be read as a cautionary tale.
Ruders says he saw "huge operatic potential" when he first read the book back in 1992. First, he says, the vividness of the colors in the story lend themselves to an operatic production; all the characters are assigned a particular color and uniform depending on their function in society. The basic themes of love, hate, violence, and sex are all very operatic, as well. But what came through most clearly to Ruders was what he calls "a heartbreaking tenderness" in the incredible love Offred, the main character, feels for the daughter who was taken from her years previously by the regime. "That's the real core of the novel to me, at least in terms of operatic merit," he says.
With its blatant sex, violence, and nasty language, The Handmaid's Tale may be a difficult story to present. It takes on themes that may be seen as risky, but Dale Johnson, artistic director of the Minnesota Opera, says the opera is ultimately about the dehumanization of people, not about abortion rights or lack of freedoms.
"We're in a climate where perhaps people are afraid to ... talk about freedom. We're afraid to talk about a sense of individuality," says Johnson. "We're in a time right now where we're willing to put up with things for the sake of safety." He stresses that the Minnesota Opera did not take on the production for the sake of making a political statement, but he says the public may be ripe for seeing such a presentation onstage.
"If we can get the audience to get inside the heads of the various characters on stage I think it opens people's minds up to sort of talk about things," he says. The antagonists in the story are monstrous to the female characters, but even they are human, says Johnson. They are victims of the regime in their own way. So, he says, it's important to look at all the characters and think: How would I react? "If we can focus on these human beings onstage, no, it's not a risk, ultimately."