STUDENT STUDY GUIDE
Esther Nelson Stanford Calderwood General & Artistic Director David Angus Music Director John Conklin Artistic Advisor
May 3, 2019
Dear Educator, Boston Lyric Opera is pleased to invite high school and college students to attend Final Dress Rehearsals throughout our Season. We look forward to welcoming you and your students to the Ray Lavietes Pavilion at Harvard University for BLO’s immersive production of Poul Ruders' 21st century opera, The Handmaid's Tale. It is important to know that this opera contains scenes of violence, misogyny, and sexual assault. In order to help you best prepare for the opera, please note that this Study Guide describes plot details and events and discusses subject matter that may be sensitive to some. Our intent is to provide support in historical as well as contemporary context, along with tools to thoughtfully discuss the opera with your students. BLO is partnering with Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and Casa Myrna for this production. On page 25, we provide resources for each of these community organizations specifically geared toward young people. As you discuss this in your classroom, consider that there may be students who are personally affected by the subject matter. It may also be important to remind your students that as an educator you are legally obligated to report sensitive information they may choose to disclose. Opera is an art form that can contain big, difficult emotions and BLO aims to provide a community forum from which to explore and discuss them. The experience of seeing and hearing live, professional opera is second to none, and we encourage you to explore the world of the opera in your classroom as well. We are proud to offer this Study Guide to support your discussions and preparations for The Handmaid's Tale. We’ve included special insights into this particular production as well as the opera’s history with connections to Social Studies and English Language Arts. Boston Lyric Opera’s mission is to build curiosity, enthusiasm, and support for opera. This Study Guide is one way in which we support the incredible work of educators like you, who are inspired by this beautiful art form and introduce it to your students. As we continue to develop additional Study Guides, we want your feedback. Please tell us about how you use this guide and how it can best serve your needs by emailing email@example.com. If you’re interested in additional opera education opportunities with Boston Lyric Opera, please visit blo.org/education to discover more about our programs. We look forward to seeing you at Harvard's basketball court! Sincerely,
Rebecca Ann S. Kirk Manager of Education Programs
TABLE OF CONTENTS HISTORY OF OPERA: AN OVERVIEW .................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 4 THE SCIENCE AND ART OF OPERA......................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 7 THE HANDMAID’S TALE SYNOPSIS................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ 11 FICTION OR HYPERREALITY?...................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 13 THE AUTHOR AND HER WORLD.................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 14 GO CRIMSON................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 16 (NOT) ABOUT RELIGION.......................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 18 REGULATING WOMEN’S BODIES................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................. 20 A DYSTOPIAN 21ST CENTURY OPERA.......................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 21 STAY PRESENT.............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................. 22 LISTEN UP!................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 24 RESOURCES.....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
NOTES TO PREPARE FOR THE OPERA........................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 29
THE HISTORY OF OPERA Toccata from L’Orfeo. Claudio Monteverdi Favola in musica. Reprint of the First Edition of the Score, Venice 1609, via Wikimedia Commons
People have been telling stories through music for millennia throughout the world. Opera is an art form with roots in Western Europe dating back hundreds of years. Here is a brief timeline of its lineage.
RENAISSANCE 1573 The Florentine Camerata was founded in Italy, devoted to reviving ancient Greek musical traditions, including sung drama. 1598 Jacopo Peri, a member of the Camerata, composed the world’s first opera – Dafne, reviving the classic myth. 1607 Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) wrote the first opera to become popular, Orfeo, making him the premier opera composer of his day and bridging the gap between Renaissance and Baroque music. His works are still performed today. BAROQUE
1637 The first public opera house, Teatro San Cassiano, was built in Venice, Italy. 1673 Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), an Italian-born composer, brought opera to the French court, creating a unique style, tragédie en musique, that better suited the French language. Blurring the lines between recitative and aria, he created fast-paced dramas to suit the tastes of French aristocrats. 1689 Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) simple and elegant chamber opera, Dido and Aeneas, premiered at Josias Priest’s boarding school for girls in London. 1712 George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), a German-born composer, moved to London, where he found immense success writing intricate and highly ornamented Italian opera seria (serious opera). Ornamentation refers to stylized, fast-moving notes, usually improvised by the singer to make a musical line more interesting and to showcase their vocal talent.
Dido and Aeneas, 1747, Pompeo Batoni, via Wikimedia Commons
1750s A reform movement, led by composer Christoph Gluck (1714-1787), rejected the flashy ornamented style of the Baroque in favor of simplicity refined to enhance the drama. 1767 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote his first opera at age 11, beginning his 25-year opera career. Mozart mastered, then innovated in several operatic forms. He wrote operas serias, including La Clemenza di Tito, and operas buffas (comedic operas) like Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). He then combined the two genres in Don Giovanni, calling it dramma giocoso. Mozart also innovated on the form of Singspiel (German sung play), featuring spoken dialogue, as in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
1805 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) although a prolific composer, wrote only one opera, Fidelio. The extremes of musical expression in Beethoven’s music pushed the boundaries in the late Classical period and inspired generations of Romantic composers.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
ROMANTIC — THE GOLDEN AGE OF OPERA 1816 Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) composed Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), becoming the most prodigious opera composer in Italy by age 24. He wrote 39 operas in 20 years. A new style created by Rossini and his contemporaries, including Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, would, a century later, be referred to as bel canto (beautiful singing). Bel canto compositions were inspired by the nuanced vocal capabilities of the human voice and its expressive potential. Composers employed a strategic use of register, the push and pull of tempo (rubato), extremely smooth and connected phrases (legato), and vocal glides (portamento). 1842 Inspired by the risqué popular entertainment of French vaudeville, Hervé created the first operetta, a short comedic musical drama with spoken dialogue. Responding to popular trends, this new form stood in contrast to the increasingly serious and dramatic works at the grand Parisian opera house. Opéra comique as a genre was often not comic, rather realistic or humanistic. Grand Opera, on the contrary, was exaggerated and melodramatic. 1853 Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) completed La Traviata, a story of love, loss, and the struggle of average people, in the increasingly popular realistic style of verismo. Verdi enjoyed immense acclaim during his lifetime, while expanding opera to include larger orchestras, extravagant sets and costumes, and more highly trained voices.
A scene from a 19th-century version of the play The Barber of Seville by Pierre Beaumarchais. Its origins in the commedia dell’arte are shown in this picture which portrays Figaro dressed in the costume and mask of Harlequin. 1884, via Wikimedia Commons
1865 Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) Tristan und Isolde was the beginning of musical Modernism, pushing the use of traditional harmony to its extreme. His massively ambitious, lengthy operas, often based in German folklore, sought to synthesize music, theater, poetry, and visuals in what he called a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). The most famous of these was an epic four-opera drama, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which took him 26 years to write and was completed in 1874. 1871 Influenced by French operetta, English librettist W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) began their 25-year partnership, which produced 14 comic operettas including The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. Their works helped inspire the genre of American musical theater. 1874 Johann Strauss II, influenced largely by his father, with whom he shared a name and talent, composed Die Fledermaus, popularizing Viennese musical traditions, namely the waltz, and shaping operetta. 1896 Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) La Bohème captivated audiences with its intensely beautiful music, realism, and raw emotion. Puccini enjoyed huge acclaim during his lifetime for his works.
Mikado theatre poster, Edinburgh, 1885, via Wikimedia Commons
Hammerstein and Kern
20TH CENTURY 1911 Scott Joplin, “The King of Ragtime,” wrote his only opera, Treemonisha, which was not performed until 1972. The work combined the European late-Romantic operatic style with African American folk songs, spirituals, and dances. The libretto, also by Joplin, was written at a time when literacy among African Americans in the southern United States was rare.
1922 Alban Berg (1885-1935) composed the first completely atonal opera, Wozzeck, dealing with uncomfortable themes of militarism and social exploitation. Wozzeck is in the style of 12-tone music or Serialism. This new compositional style, developed in Vienna by composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), placed equal importance on each of the 12 pitches in a scale, removing the sense of the music being in a particular key. 1927 American musical theater, commonly referred to as Broadway, was taken more seriously after Jerome Kern’s (1885-1945) Show Boat, words by Oscar Hammerstein, tackled issues of racial segregation and the ban on interracial marriage in Mississippi. 1935 American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937), who was influenced by African American music and culture, debuted his opera, Porgy and Bess, in Boston, MA, with an all-African American cast of classically trained singers. 1945 British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) gained international recognition with his opera Peter Grimes. Britten, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), was one of the first British opera composers to gain fame in nearly 300 years. 1957 Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), known for synthesizing musical genres, brought together the best of American musical theater, opera, and ballet in West Side Story—a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet in a contemporary setting.
Porgy and Bess by the New York Harlem Theatre, 2009
1987 John Adams (b. 1947) composed one of the great minimalist operas, Nixon in China, the story of Nixon’s 1972 meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Musical Minimalism strips music down to its essential elements, usually featuring a great deal of repetition with slight variations. TODAY Still a vibrant and evolving art form, opera attracts contemporary composers such as Dominick Argento (b. 1927), Philip Glass (b. 1937), Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960), Thomas Adès (b. 1971), and many others. These composers continue to be influenced by present and historical musical forms in creating new operas that explore current issues or reimagine ancient tales.
So Young Park as Queen of the Night Photo: Eric Antoniou.
THE SCIENCE AND ART OF OPERA WHY DO OPERA SINGERS SOUND LIKE THAT? Opera is unique among forms of singing in that singers are trained to be able to sing without amplification, in large theaters, over an entire orchestra, and still be heard and understood! This is what sets the art form of opera apart from similar forms such as musical theater. To become a professional opera singer, it takes years of intense physical training and constant practice—not unlike that of a ballet dancer—to stay in shape. Additionally, while ballet dancers can dance through pain and illness, poor health, especially respiratory issues and even allergies, can be severely debilitating for a professional opera singer. Let’s peek into some of the science of this art form.
HOW THE VOICE WORKS Singing requires different parts of the body to work together: the lungs, the vocal cords, the vocal tract, and the articulators (lips, teeth, and tongue). The lungs create a flow of air over the vocal cords, which vibrate. That vibration is amplified by the vocal tract and broken up into words by consonants produced by the articulators. Breath: Any good singer will tell you that good breath support is essential to produce quality sound. Breath is like the gas that goes into your car. Without it, nothing runs. In order to sing long phrases of music with clarity and volume, opera singers access their full lung capacity by keeping the torso elongated and releasing the lower abdomen and diaphragm muscles, which allows air to enter into the lower lobes of the lungs. This is why we associate a certain posture with opera singers. In the past, many operas were staged with singers standing in one place to deliver an entire aria or scene, with minimal activity. Modern productions, however, often demand a much greater range of movement and agility onstage, requiring performers to be physically fit, and disproving the stereotype of the “fat lady sings.”
Vibration: If you run your fingers along your throat you will feel a little lump just underneath your chin. That is your “Adam’s Apple,” and right behind it, housed in the larynx (voice-box), are your vocal cords. When air from the lungs crosses over the vocal cords it creates an area of low pressure (google The Bernoulli Effect), which brings the cords together and makes them vibrate. This vibration produces a buzz. The vocal chords can be lengthened or shortened by muscles in the larynx, or by increasing the speed of air flow. This change in the length and thickness of the vocal cords is what allows singers to create different pitches. Higher pitches require long, thin cords, while low pitches require short, thick ones. Professional singers take great pains to protect the delicate anatomy of their vocal cords with hydration and rest, as the tiniest scarring or inflammation can have noticeable effects on the quality of sound produced.
Resonance: Without the resonating chambers in the head, the buzzing of the vocal cords would sound very unpleasant. The vocal tract, a term encompassing the mouth cavity, and the back of the throat, down to the larynx, shapes the buzzing of the vocal cords like a sculptor shapes clay. Shape your mouth in an ee vowel (as in eat), then sharply inhale a few times. The cool sensation you feel at the top and back of your mouth is your soft palate. The soft palate can raise or lower to change the shape of the vocal tract. Opera singers always strive to sing with a raised soft palate, which allows for the greatest amplification of the sound produced by the vocal cords. Different vowel sounds are produced by raising or lowering the tongue. Say the vowels: ee, eh, ah, oh, oo and notice how each vowel requires a slightly lower tongue placement. This area of vocal training is particularly difficult because none of the anatomy is visible from the outside!
Articulation: The lips, teeth, and tongue are all used to create consonant sounds, which separate words into syllables and make language intelligible. Consonants must be clear and audible for the singer to be understood. Because opera singers do not sing with amplification, their articulation must be particularly good. The challenge lies in producing crisp, rapid consonants without interrupting the connection of the vowels (through the controlled exhale of breath) within the musical phrase.
Perfecting every element of this complex singing system requires years of training, and is essential for the demands of the art form. An opera singer must be capable of singing for hours at a time, over the top of an orchestra, in large opera houses, while acting and delivering an artistic interpretation of the music. It is complete and total engagement of mental, physical, and emotional control and expression. Therefore think of opera singers as the Olympic athletes of the stage, sit back, and marvel at what the human body is capable of! 7
Somewhat equivalent to the lower female alto role in a chorus, mezzosopranos (mezzo translates as “middle”) are known for their full and expressive qualities. While they don’t sing frequencies quite as high as sopranos, their ranges do overlap, and it is a “darker” tone that sets them apart. One of the most famous mezzo-soprano lead roles is Carmen in Bizet’s Carmen.
Occasionally women have an even lower range that overlaps with the highest male voice. This voice type is rare, and they often play male characters, referred to in opera as trouser roles.
The highest male voice; tenors often sing the role of the hero. One of the most famous tenor roles is Roméo in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliet. Occasionally men have cultivated very high voices singing in a range similar to a mezzo-soprano, but using their falsetto. Called the Countertenor, this voice type is often found in Baroque music. Countertenors replaced castrati in the heroic lead roles of Baroque opera after the practice of castration was deemed unethical.
A middle-range male voice, baritones can range from sweet and mild in tone, to darker dramatic and full tones. A famous baritone role is Rigoletto in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Baritones who are most comfortable in a slightly lower range are known as Bass-Baritones, a hybrid of the two lowest voice types.
Opera singers are cast into roles based on their tessitura (the range of notes they can sing comfortably). There are many descriptors that accompany the basic voice types, but here are some of the most common ones:
The lowest male voice, basses often fall into two main categories: basso buffo, which is a comic character who often sings in lower laughter-like tones, and basso profundo, which is as low as the human voice can sing! Doctor Bartolo is an example of a bass role in The Barber of Seville by Rossini.
The highest female voice; some sopranos are designated as coloratura, as they specialize in being able to sing very fast moving notes that are very high in frequency and light in tone, often referred to as “color notes.” One of the most famous coloratura roles is The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
DIFFERENT VOICE TYPES
Each of the voice types (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, bass) also tends to be sub-characterized by whether it is more Lyric or Dramatic in tone. Lyric singers tend toward smooth lines in their music, sensitively expressed interpretation, and flexible agility. Dramatic singers have qualities that are attributed to darker, fuller, richer note qualities expressed powerfully and robustly with strong emotion. While its easiest to understand operatic voice types through these designations and descriptions, one of the most exciting things about listening to a singer perform is that each individual’s voice is essentially unique, thus each singer will interpret a role in an opera in a different way. 8
THE PHYSICS OF OPERA SINGERS What is it about opera singers that allows them to be heard above the orchestra? It’s not that they simply sing louder. The qualities of sound have to do with the relationship between the frequency (pitch) of a sound, represented in a unit of measurement called hertz, and its amplitude, measured in decibels, which the ear perceives as loudness. Only artificially produced sounds, however, create a pure frequency and amplitude (these are the only kind that can break glass). The sound produced by a violin, a drum, a voice, or even smacking your hand on a table, produces a fundamental frequency as well as secondary, tertiary, etc. frequencies known as overtones, or as musicians call them, harmonics. For instance, the orchestra tunes to a concert “A” pitch before a performance. Concert “A” has a frequency of about 440 hertz, but that is not the only pitch you will hear. Progressively softer pitches above that fundamental pitch are produced in multiples of 440 at 880hz, 1320hz, 1760hz, etc. Each different instrument in the orchestra, because of its shape, construction, and mode in which it produces sound, produces different harmonics. This is what makes a violin, for example, have a different color (or timbre) from a trumpet. Generally, the harmonics of the instruments in the orchestra fade around 2500hz. Overtones produced by a human voice—whether speaking, yelling, or singing—are referred to as formants. As the demands of opera stars increased, vocal teachers discovered that by manipulating the empty space within the vocal tract, they could emphasize higher frequencies within the overtone series—frequencies above 2500 hz. This technique allowed singers to perform without hurting their vocal chords, as they are not actually singing at a higher fundamental decibel level than the orchestra. Swedish voice scientist, Johann Sundberg, observed this phenomenon when he recorded the world-famous tenor Jussi Bjoerling in 1970. His research showed multiple peaks in decibel level, with the strongest frequency (overtone) falling between 2500 and 3000 hertz. This frequency, known as the singer’s formant, is the “sweet spot” for singers so that we hear their voices soaring over the orchestra into the opera house night after night.
Prof. Tecumseh Fitch, evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Vienna, explains the difference between a fundamental frequency and formant frequency in the human voice. For an opera singer, the lower two formants (peaks on a graph) determine the specific vowel sound. The third formant and above add overtones that are specific to each particular singer’s voice, like a fingerprint. When two people sing the same note simultaneously, the high overtones allow your ear to distinguish two voices. 9
Boston Opera House
A RESONANT PLACE The final piece of the puzzle in creating the perfect operatic sound is the opera house or theater itself. Designing the perfect acoustic space can be an almost impossible task, one which requires tremendous knowledge of science, engineering, and architecture, as well as an artistic sensibility. The goal of the acoustician is to make sure that everyone in the audience can clearly understand the music being produced onstage, no matter where they are sitting. A perfectly designed opera house or concert hall (for non-amplified sound) functions almost like gigantic musical instrument. Reverberation is one key aspect in making a singer’s words intelligible or an orchestra’s melodies clear. Imagine the sound your voice would make in the shower or a cave. The echo you hear is reverberation caused by the large, hard, smooth surfaces. Too much reverberation (bouncing sound waves) can make words difficult to understand. Resonant vowel sounds overlap as they bounce off of hard surfaces and cover up quieter consonant sounds. In these environments, sound carries a long way but becomes unclear or, as it is sometimes called, wet–as if the sound were underwater. Acousticians can mitigate these effects by covering smooth surfaces with textured materials like fabric, perforated metal, or diffusers, which absorb and disperse sound. These tools, however, must be used carefully, as too much absorption can make a space dry–meaning the sound onstage will not carry at all and the performers may have trouble even hearing themselves. Imagine singing into a pillow or under a blanket. The shape of the room itself also contributes to the way the audience perceives the music. Most large performance spaces are shaped like a bell–small where the stage is, and growing larger and more spread out in every dimension as one moves farther away. This shape helps to create a clear path for the sound to reach every seat. In designing concert halls or opera houses, big decisions must be made about the construction of the building based on acoustical needs. Even with the best planning, the perfect acoustic is not guaranteed, but professionals are constantly learning and adapting new scientific knowledge to enhance the audience’s experience.
Boston Symphony Hall, opened in 1900, with acoustical design by Harvard physicist Wallace Clement Sabine, was the first concert hall to be designed with scientific acoustic principles in mind. Each seat was mathematically designed and placed for acoustical perfection.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE SYNOPSIS The Handmaid’s Tale contains scenes of violence, misogyny, and sexual assault. In order to help you best prepare for the opera, please note that this study guide describes plot details and events and discusses subject matter that may be sensitive to some.
ACT I After a series of disasters causes environmental ruin and widespread infertility, the United States has been taken over by an extremist Christian sect and reborn as the Republic of Gilead, where women have been returned to their “rightful” place in society. They are prohibited from holding property or working and are divided into a strict class system: Aunts are in charge of re-education and the enforcement of social codes, Marthas work as cooks and housekeepers, Wives are the property of elite men, and Handmaids are women designated to bear the children of the leaders of Gilead. We meet a narrator in the Red Center, who describes her life as a Handmaid. Her friend, Moira, is punished severely for a minor infraction and later manages to escape.
Flag of the Republic of Gilead
The narrator is given to a high-ranking Commander, receiving a new name—Offred. She meets the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, whom she recognizes as a gospel singer from the Time Before. The household also includes a Martha named Rita as well as Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur. Offred is paired with another Handmaid named Ofglen whenever she leaves the house to complete errands. All are constantly monitored by the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police force. Offred’s memories of the Time Before—her husband, her daughter, and their violent separation— haunt her.
Ofglen tells Offred that Warren’s baby was deformed and is considered an Unbaby—so it’s life was ended. They pray for Ofwarren, but confess that neither is a true believer. Ofglen revels she is a member of the resistance—Mayday.
Offred discovers a message in her wardrobe left by an earlier Handmaid, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” During one of her frequent fertility checks, the Doctor privately offers to impregnate her suggesting that her Commander is likely infertile. That night, the household gathers for the monthly ceremony, which includes prayer, reading from the Bible, and ritualized rape. Offred steals one of Serena Joy’s cigarettes on the way out. Later, Nick tells Offred that the Commander wants to see her secretly the following evening.
ACT II Ofglen urges Offred to spy on the Commander. Serena Joy asks Offred to sleep with Nick in order to get pregnant. She offers Offred a bribe—a photo of her daughter. Overwhelmed to learn that her daughter is alive, Offred agrees.
Offred and Ofglen go to Commander Warren’s house. Ofwarren is in labor. Amidst praying and chanting, the baby is born. Warren’s Wife names her baby Angela. Later, Offred meets with her Commander in his study. Women are forbidden to read or write. The Commander challenges her to a game of Scrabble. Their visits continue, and he gives her contraband—a magazine to read. More flashbacks reveal details about the Time Before, including her friendship with Moira.
Offred thinks of her husband Luke and their daughter, and remembers their desperate attempt to flee Gilead. Later, during one of their private meetings, Offred asks the Commander to translate the Latin message. He tells her it is a joke: Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
One night, the Commander gives Offred clothes and sneaks her out. They arrive at Jezebel’s, a private club for high-ranking men. Offred spots Moira across the room. They meet in the bathroom and embrace. After she escaped the Red Center, Moira was caught and given a choice: working in the Colonies, or a sex slave at Jezebel’s. She chose the latter. Offred returns to the Commander. Back at the house, Serena Joy shows Offred a picture of her daughter, then brings her to Nick. They pretend nothing is wrong and make love. Her affair with Nick continues and she opens up to him. 11
The Handmaids and Wives are marched to the Salvaging Center. Aunt Lydia reads charges against two women who have broken the rules, and the Salvagers dispense justice. Next, Aunt Lydia describes the crimes of a man, beaten and bloody. The Handmaids perform a ritual beating of the man until he is no longer alive. Offred hangs back at first, but Ofglen urges her on, telling her that she is being watched.
CHARACTERS Offred, mezzo-soprano Narrator
Later, Offred waits for Ofglen to do their shopping, but a new Ofglen appears instead. At the house, Serena Joy furiously confronts Offred with evidence of her rendezvous with the Commander. She sends Offred to her room. Suddenly, Nick bursts in with a group of Eyes. Mayday, he says, and Offred is carried away.
Did you know? Atwood had a cameo in the current Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, as an Aunt reeducating the Handmaid’s in the Red Center.
Offred from the Time Before (The Double), mezzo-soprano Narrator remembering her past self Commander, bass-baritone High-ranking Gilead official, Offred’s master Serena Joy, mezzo-soprano Commander’s wife and former televangelist Nick, tenor Commander’s chauffeur Janine /Ofwarren, soprano A handmaid; Offred’s friend from the Red Center Moira, soprano Offred’s friend from the Time Before Ofglen, soprano A handmaid; Offred’s shopping partner and friend Aunt Lydia, soprano Handmaids’ re-education teacher at the Red Center Rita, mezzo-soprano A Martha (cook) at the Commander’s home Doctor, tenor Offred’s doctor Luke, tenor Offred’s husband from the Time Before 12
Costume renderings of Aunt Lydia and Handmaids by scenic and costume designer James Schuette for Boston Lyric Opera.
FICTION OR HYPERREALITY? The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, and adapted into an opera in 2000. Since the libretto’s narrative rarely wavers from the novel, the opera remains heavily influenced by Margaret Atwood’s original text. The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel in the genre of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is an all-encompassing term for novels containing situations outside the present reality. Unlike science fiction however, speculative fiction deals with human problems rather than technology outside of human means (i.e. time machines or robots). It is also, more specifically, a dystopian novel. A dystopia is a fictional representation of a repressive, problematic society, but based in a real, often current socio-political context taken to an extreme. Dystopian literature is inherently political, offering social commentary as a subtext in the narrative, that is thus meant to be read as a cautionary tale. The opposite of a dystopia is a utopia, which depicts a fictional perfect society, yet still offers a specific point of view. Both styles of writing share common themes and symbols, like oppression in some capacity, spies, and resistance movements with plots that have the protagonist questioning the status quo. Dystopian literature emerged in the late 19th century and exploded during
years of political and social instability in Europe and America. Authors offered narratives of warning for what would come if the world continued in the current direction. Margaret Atwood remarked that The Handmaid’s Tale grew out of the consideration that “it couldn’t happen here,” in America in the context of shifting world politics and divisive social movements, but then imagined what if “maybe it could” in her book. Atwood’s self-imposed rule while creating her dystopian world was to “not put anything in the book that human beings hadn’t actually done” to make it as realistic as possible. Other well-known dystopian novels include Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1931), 1984 by George Orwell (1949), and The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993). Note the years in which these books were written. The authors were imagining the fictional future that we now live in, from the perspective of their (at the time) present day. Dystopian literature remains a very popular genre today with a recent well-known example of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008), which received critical acclaim. In each of these dystopian novels, new states and governments are imagined, like Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Margaret Atwood in Eden Mills, Canada, 2003
Beyond being defined as a speculative fiction and a dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is also a literature of witness. The story is framed with chapters at the beginning and end, that take place even further into the future, and the piece is presented as “history” recollected and experienced in the past—in a different time. Therefore, Atwood framed her fictional piece in a similar way to how the nonfiction The Diary of Anne Frank is taught in schools today—as an anthropological, autobiographical document. Additionally, the word “tale” suggests a series of fantastic journeys of intense struggle, like the much older Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1387).
Mockingjay symbol, from the 2008 novel, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
DISCUSS: Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale over 30 years ago, imagining a fictional future. Are there any aspects of her imagined Republic of Gilead that are similar to today? In what ways are they similar?
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Giver by Lois Lowry, winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal
THE AUTHOR AND HER WORLD Margaret Atwood, celebrated Canadian poet, novelist, and essayist, was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Throughout her career thus far, she has received many accolades for her notable and exemplary literary work including being inducted into the Royal Society of Literature and Royal Society of Canada, as well as being awarded over fifty literary awards and honorary degrees from academic institutions across the globe. Atwood began writing plays and poems at the age of six and decided to pursue writing as a career when she was sixteen. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Writing at University of Toronto, and continued her education receiving a Masters from Radcliffe College at Harvard University in 1962. She began doctoral studies, but never completed her degree, instead pursuing a career as a writer and novelist as well as serving as a university professor. By the early 1970s she had established herself as a celebrated Canadian writer. #socialmediasavvy Atwood has an active Twitter account! Follow her @MargaretAtwood Atwood’s writing is influenced by Victorian Literature (which was the focus of her graduate study), fairytales and mysteries. She was a voracious reader as a child, a habit that has continued throughout her life. She also draws influence from her upbringing as the daughter of a nutritionist (mother) and entomologist (father), giving her great reverence for clever heroines and the theme of survival, respectively. Atwood has over 40 published works thus far spanning from 1961 to the present day, notably including, The Edible Women (1969), Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and The Blind Assassin (2000). Her works have been adapted into opera, plays, ballets, films, 14
and multiple TV series. She is currently working on a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale called The Testaments, which is due to release in September of 2019. The Handmaid’s Tale was heavily influenced by Atwood’s own political and social climate. It is a novel indicative of Atwood’s ability to imagine an intricate social world that explores themes present in much of her work, including power politics, dynamics between women, and survival. There are several major national and global movements that inspired Atwood’s Republic of Gilead. Apart from her continued illustrious writing career, Atwood continues to be an active digital media advocate, hoping to make access to literature easier. Additionally, she has spoken out on environmental and cultural issues in Canada and the U.S. She currently lives with her partner Graeme Gibson in Toronto, Canada. Fascism: Atwood’s earliest years took place during World War II, and her coming of age coincided with the tremendous social, political, and cultural change that unfolded following the war. During this period, established regimes vanished seemingly overnight as new ones took hold. While Fascism has its roots in the 19thcentury, the movement notably grew in strength and numbers with Mussolini in Italy and the Nazi Party in Germany following World War I, and soon spread across Europe. Fascism is characterized by an ultra-nationalistic, oppressive government that often rises to power in times of strife for a country. This type of regime aims to control all individuals in all aspects of their life and suppress any opposition for the sake of the state, including statesanctioned murder.
Fascist Nazi iconography
Margaret Atwood in Buenos Aires, 2016
Theocracy: In the 1970s and '80s, political regimes based in religion came to the forefront of world politics. While writing her book, Atwood read in the newspaper about the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Though Iran installed a Islamic Republic as their country’s government, and the Taliban, a Fundamentalist Islamic organization, was operating outside of Afghanistan’s government, both came to power with religious justification. Atwood also reflected on early American history when Puritans founded the first colonies based in their religious beliefs. Religious Right: The Religious Right refers to a socio-political group in the 1980s influencing American politics. The group draws on a long history of Christian fundamentalism beginning with the Puritan governing beliefs of early colonies and stretching across centuries of temperance movements through the 19th century. Christian Fundamentalism emerged in the early 20th century countering advancements in scientific research and adhering to traditional biblical instruction. Throughout the 20th century, conservative fundamentalist politicians, religious leaders, and activists used their respective positions of power to influence economic, foreign, and social policy. Countering the Civil Rights Movement and other social movements including Feminism, Environmentalism in the 1960s and '70s, there was a strong resurgence of conservative religious fundamentalism in the 1980s. The Religious Right passionately opposed abortion, birth control, pornography, and LGBTQ+ rights among other issues as threats to traditional family and social values on which the country was founded.
A Republic is defined as a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives including a president, with a particular emphasis on equality between all members. However throughout history there have been many a government under the name of a republic, but which does not, in practice, fully ascribe to these tenants. Notice that Atwood’s fictional government is called The Republic of Gilead. The Cold War: Following World War II, the Cold War divided two world superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, along with their allies, between two governmental ideologies, Communism and Democracy. While both World Wars were dominated by active combat, the Cold War was characterized by secrecy, spies, and the development of nuclear weapons. This war dominated political decisions across the globe from the '50s through the '90s. Atwood lived for a time in Berlin—a city divided during the Cold War. Meanwhile, United States Senator, Joseph McCarthy put hundreds of Americans on trial for suspected Communist affiliations. Secrecy surrounding government agents suspected of espionage were extremely prevalent, with both sides holding the ability to take anyone away, never to be seen again. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who led America’s hunt for alleged communist spies, 1953
Feminism: There have been several waves of feminism each characterized by their own focus or issue. The first was the Women’s Suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Women’s Suffrage advocated and succeed in overturning legal barriers giving women the right to vote. The Second Wave, in the 1960s and '70s fueled by the Civil Rights Movement, offered an intellectual framework for feminism, and fought for equity in the workplace and higher education, dismantled antiquated rape and domestic violence laws, advocated for women’s health issues—including legalizing abortion in 1973, and challenged traditional gender roles. Second Wave Feminism influenced Margaret Atwood considerably and has strongly influenced many of her works. She does not consider herself a feminist, however, even though many of her books are included in Women's Studies curricula. She is a passionate supporter of women's rights, but chooses not to define herself with a label that changes definition with the decades. Today, we are in the Fourth Wave Feminism, which strives for increasing inclusion across racial, socio-economic status, and gender identities, but is considerably more divided than previous waves. Environmental Politics: Legislation regulating environmental pollution flourished in the 1970s, but momentum slowed with President Ronald Reagan in the early '80s as he prioritized uninhibited economic growth, and legislated accordingly. In the '70s and '80s, the United States witnessed the nuclear explosion on Three Mile Island, toxic waste dumped into New York’s Love Canal, acid rain, and abroad, the Bhopal Factory explosion in India caused by a gas leak. Man-made environmental disasters alarmed Americans,
American Association of University Women members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10, 1963. Photo: Abbie Rowe. JFK Presidential Library and Museum.
and environmental protection initiatives grew strongly in both urban and suburban support. Cults: Various fringe religious and ideological cults flourished in the 1960s and continued through the '80s. Some of the most notable include the Manson Family that committed the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969, The People’s Temple that led 818 people to a collective suicide in 1978, and the Rajneesh Movement that created their own city in Oregon high desert in the 1980s. Though these cults differed in ideology and practice, they all represented fervent blind faith with unwavering obedience to a higher being and leadership. Safety in Canada In The Handmaid’s Tale, Canada was a place many fled to escape the Republic of Gilead. In fact, Canada has a long history of welcoming political refugees, including slaves through the Underground Railroad and those evading the Vietnam War draft in the 1970s. Canada often remains neutral in global politics. DISCUSS: Margaret Atwood had a rule that she would only use things that had already happened when writing her novel. What global movements and events influence your writing? Why might you choose to include them if you were working on dystopian fiction? 15
GO CRIMSON! It is rare opportunity to present an opera in the physical location in which it is set. The Republic of Gilead’s power is centralized in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As the new totalitarian government is established, our narrator finds herself in the reeducation center—known as the Red Center—which she notes used to be a gymnasium in a former time. As Offred, a Handmaid of a high ranking commander, her occasional opportunities to go out of the house, and her reflections on the “time before” identify these locations as Cambridge, and specifically iconic Harvard University buildings. Buildings that were once accessible to students and the public, such as dormitories and the boathouse on the Charles River, are now off-limits to all except Gilead’s Secret police, the Eyes. Shops that once dotted Church Street, or entertainment businesses such as the Brattle Theatre, have been turned into memories for Offred. The most notable location is the Harvard Wall that encloses the university, which is now where bodies hang. Boston Lyric Opera’s production will take place at Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion, a basketball gymnasium—second oldest in the country, that perhaps could have been the one Atwood was thinking about as she wrote the opening of her book.
Statue of John Harvard, the college’s original benefactor and founder
Atwood’s decision to set her narrative in Cambridge was a conscious one. Though today, the public knows Harvard as a center for liberal education and civic engagement, its roots are as a Puritan theological seminary—the religious inspiration at the core of Gilead’s ideology. Harvard’s inception in 1637—then The College at Newtone (before Newtone was renamed Cambridge)—was soon after the first boats of Puritans arrived to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They anticipated the need to train additional clergy, and established the seminary as a crucial step in establishing their new society. After John Harvard, an English clergyman, donated a large sum to help the new school establish itself, the college was aptly renamed.
Atwood spent some time in Cambridge when she completed her graduate degree at Radcliffe in the early 1960s. Radcliffe College was founded in 1879 as Harvard’s counterpart for women, before women were admitted to Harvard. The schools merged in 1963—a year after Atwood conferred her degree—completing full integration in 1999. Lithograph depicting the Salem Witch Trials, 1892
Barnard and Briggs Halls, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass. Postcard. Tichnor Bros. Inc., Boston, Mass. Aprox. 1930 – 1945. Boston Public Library.
Witchcraft Puritans believed that the devil walked in their midst, and witches were believed to consort with evil and dark magic. The trials and execution of these so-call witches were believed to root out evil and protect the piety of the community. Margaret Atwood learned she may be a descendant of Mary Webster who is known for having been accused, tried, and hung for being a witch in 1689, (although she survived!) in Hadley, MA several years before the Salem Witch Trials. Atwood dedicated her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, to Mary Webster.
Harvard’s Widener Library
The Puritan movement believed that the Church of England had not gone far enough to separate itself from the Catholic Church after the Protestant Reformation. This was a long and drawn out division that resulted in several new Protestant denominations, many originating through Calvinist beliefs. Many of these Puritan Protestants gained power in political and commercial sectors. From these ties, a group decided to emigrate to found Massachusetts Bay Colony in the mid-1600s. Founding a new city with a strong moral, religious, political and social codes, defined the way of life. Some of these manifested in strictly defined social
gender roles—men as spiritual heads of their households with full authority and leadership through prayer, and women as pious wives and mothers, with complete submissiveness and humility. Though the Puritan faith emerged out of religious dissent from the Church of England, throughout Harvard’s history as a theological seminary it has served as a forum for religious dialogue and dissents as the religious landscape continued to change both in England and the Colonies. Up until the early 18th century Harvard was run by presidents of Puritan orthodoxy, and remained a prominent and prestigious
seminary through the 19th century. Today, Harvard Divinity School is not affiliated with a particular doctrine or faith, rather describes itself as a “nonsectarian school of religious and theological studies.”
DISCUSS: Margaret Atwood created an intricate world in her novel, drawing on both her personal experience with a place, and her knowledge of the history of that place. What details, locations, and histories would influence your writing?
Sketche of typical Puritan dress
Ray Lavietes Pavilion, Harvard University
Harvard’s famous entryway into the center of campus, Johnston Gate
(NOT) ABOUT RELIGION Though the religious allusions and influences are plentiful in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has made it very clear that she is in no capacity asserting through her novel that religion is bad, rather that the abuse of power can stem from any ideology, and societies striving for equity and freedom should be wary of this authoritarian imbalance of power. In human history, religion is one way people in power have justified authoritarian control over a populace. Both Atwood and composer Poul Ruders use elements of various religious traditions, mainly Christian, to bring to life details of The Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. Details from the Bible, melodies from old Christian hymns, and even dress codes from conservative religious traditions have inspired Gilead. Let’s explore a few of the more prominent ones: Handmaids: The world at the rise of The Republic of Gilead is in the midst of a fertility crisis, with high levels of infertility plaguing the populace making procreation very challenging. Therefore, women are designated as one of three main roles in society: Wives, Marthas, or Handmaids.
Sketch of typical Puritan dress 18
Christ at Martha and Mary’s Home by Georg Friedrich Stettner (1639)
Handmaids’ sole responsibility is to bear healthy children, who upon birth become property of the Wife of the family she works for (read: is enslaved in). The Handmaids wear red. Gilead uses a passage from The Book of Genesis, as a basis for this arrangement:
Gilead: Gilead first appears in the Bible in the first book of Genesis. It is a town described as a hilly country in what is modern day Jordan. In the story of Jacob mentioned above, Jacob flees to Gilead running away from his boss and father-in-law.
“And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said unto Jacob, ‘Give me children or else I die.’ And she said, ‘Behold my maid, Bilhah. Go in unto her and she shall bear upon my knees so that I might also have children by her.’ And she gave him Bilhah, their Handmaid, to wife, and Jacob went unto her.” Genesis 30:1-3
Marthas: Marthas are older, infertile women who perform domestic tasks for high-ranking officials and wear green. The name “Martha” is based in the story of Jesus visiting the home of Martha and her sister Mary. In the Gospel of Luke 10:38–42, Mary listens to Jesus’ teachings as Martha works at “all the preparations that had to be made” and frets that she is doing all the work without help.
Inspired by this passage as well, The Rachel and Leah Center, the full name of the place where the Handmaids are re-educated before being assigned to a family. In fact, in the next passage in Genesis, Rachel’s sister Leah, too, used her handmaid, Zilpah, to bear Jacob children. In the same vein, The Sons of Jacob is the name group that overthrew the existing United States government in The Handmaid's Tale.
Costume Rendering of a Wife by scenic and costume designer James Schuette for Boston Lyric Opera.
Wives: Wives are married to high-ranking officials, marked by a pale blue dress in the liking of the Virgin Mary. They too are unable to bear children, but aren’t always old, rather perhaps infertile. They have the status of ultimate purity for their husbands.
Nuns with Priest on Cathedral Steps, Leon, Nicaragua. 2016. Photo: Adam Jones. Wikimedia Commons.
What’s in a name? Offred, Ofglen, and Ofwarren all begin with the prefix “of” followed by the name of the man they serve as a handmaid. At the core of Gilead’s ideology, is the fundamentalist view that women are property of their husbands and therefore have no independent personhood in the eyes of the government—therefore the possession of their own name is irrelevant. The name of the main character, Offred, also insinuates another religious meaning: “offered” or sacrifice.
Beatitudes: The Handmaids’ recite a series of phrases each beginning with “blessed are those.” Though some are the same as the actual Beatitudes in the Bible, several are added for Gilead’s cause such as “blessed are the silent.” Men: The men in power are called Commanders of the Faithful. The police force is referred to as the Eyes of the Lord, and soldiers are called Angels of the Apocalypse. Music: Although music is forbidden in Giliad, Offred finds herself singing Amazing Grace in her head from time to time. Amazing Grace is an Anglican hymn written in 1779, in England. It became popular in Protestant churches in the United States in the Second Great Awakening Protestant Reformation in the early 19th century. DISCUSS: Although Atwood primarily used overt Christian allusions in creating Gilead, she was influenced by other world events that were abusing power under the name of a religion. What other practices or traditions past or present from other totalitarian religious regimes can you see in The Handmaid’s Tale?
The Beatitudes, eight blessings recounted from the Sermon on the Mount in the Book of Matthew, unknown location
REGULATING WOMEN’S BODIES The regulation of women’s bodies that happens in The Handmaid's Tale has echoes in regimes throughout world history. Look back at Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy and see laws passed and money allotted to increase the birth rates of their countries. In times of strife, the ruling class often monopolizes valuable things in society. In the world of Handmaid’s, widespread infertility has caused the state to take total control of women who can conceive, regulating every single aspect of their lives. Their cycles are tracked by a doctor and the whole family. Ritualized rape is performed once a month at ovulation to attempt conception. Gilead regulates who must have children and who keeps the babies. Abortion is illegal in Gilead, (except state-sanctioned termination for an “unbaby” one that is not fully formed, or otherwise is born with a disability) and handmaids have no choice in their situation. The state regulates what is worn by women too. Handmaids must wear long red robes coving every inch of their body and a hood to shield their faces. Wives, Econowives, and Marthas also wear specific colors and clothing to denote their rank and position in society. Handmaids are not allowed to read, be in any public place alone, or even look in a mirror. If women do not fit in the desired societal category (for instance, if they identify as a person of color, someone with a disability, or non-heterosexual), they are sent to work in the Colonies, which presumably was a part of the planet which served as a toxic waste dump. The Jezebels, or sex workers, are trafficked and placed by the state for the use of high-ranking commanders. These women are reminiscent of the Comfort Women in Japan and Korea, forced to serve soldiers during World War II. Tightening abortion laws, forced sterilization, sex trafficking, and keeping women hidden and uneducated still happens around the world today.
Illinois Handmaids Speak Out, Downtown Chicago, Illinois 2018 Photo: Charles Edward Miller Wikimedia Commons.
Fun Fact: Atwood’s clothing inspiration for the Handmaids was influenced by a picture on a can of Old Dutch Cleanser. Old Dutch Cleanser Advertisement drawing, 1919 20
A DYSTOPIAN 21ST CENTURY OPERA
Actor and Librettist, Paul Bentley
Poul Ruders is often considered the most successful post-war Danish composer. Born in 1945, he has composed since the 1970s and continues to compose today. Before The Handmaid’s Tale (2000), he had been largely known as a composer of orchestral symphonies and smaller works. The Handmaid’s Tale was his second opera, and to date, he has composed five, including his first, Tycho (1986) and most recent, The Thirteenth Child, which will premiere in June 2019. Other notable works include music inspired from his travel to the U.S, including Manhattan Abstraction (1982) and Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean (2004), based on the writings of Carl Sagan. Tradition and tonality fell away in much of 20th century composition. Post-war avant-garde composers challenged traditional operatic norms. Scenes occurred simultaneously, some composers forewent narratives, (e.g. Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach of 1975), and some dispensed with text entirely. Post-modernist forms emerged as composers began to experiment with silence and non-musical noise—led by composer John Cage—quoting other composers, namely Charles Ives, as well as incorporations of other styles of music into the operatic form. Ruders writes in a variety of styles incorporating elements and traditions from jazz, minimalist, expressionistic, and even medieval music. He was also influenced by popular culture, not unlike his contemporaries with the explosion of film and film scoring as another highly popular musical storytelling medium. The Handmaid’s Tale incorporates all of these styles in a single score. In the opera you will hear repetitive, minimalist riffs, hymns, echoes of familiar songs including "Amazing Grace," forced silence, and realistic sound effects. Intense chromaticism and expressionistic composing underscores the psychological narratives throughout the opera containing and building the dramatic tension. Paul Bentley’s libretto allowed Ruders the opportunity to create a rich musical landscape. He frequently quotes from Atwood’s text, shifting things ever-so-slightly to enrich the opera. For example, Atwood never has Serena Joy sing in her book even though she was a gospel singer prior to Gilead’s formation, but Bentley and Ruders give her a voice, bringing in nostalgic popular music to create a dichotomy between the "Time Before" and now. Bentley also added in the character of The Double, so pre-Gilead Offred can musically interact with the Offred of present-day Gilead. Bentley has served as a librettist for five operas, including one other of Ruders’, Kafka’s Trial (2005). He is a music and theatre scholar, but is perhaps more well known as a British stage and film actor, playing High Septon on the HBO hit series, Game of Thrones.
Director, Anne Bogart
Composer, Poul Rudders
The Handmaid’s Tale premiered at the World Danish Opera in 2000 in Danish. The English version premiered at the English National Opera in 2003, and also in the U.S. later that same year at Minnesota Opera. The Danish premiere were met with mixed reviews, but the U.S. and following Canadian premiere was met warmly. The operatic Handmaid’s Tale won the Cannes Classical Award. Ruders noted how well suited the novel was to be an opera, as it is high drama filled with deep and intense human emotions. Ruders even went as far as to tell Atwood if she didn't give him permission to adapt her novel into an opera, he’d never write another opera again. She initially agreed with some hesitation, and ended up loving it. Opera has a long history of adapting from existing stories, such as Greek Mythology, and Shakespearean tragedies, and today has a plethora of other literature to adapt from, including novels. In fact, Poul Ruders’ opera was not the only adaptation of Atwood’s novel. In 1990 playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter adapted The Handmaid’s Tale into a screenplay. It garnered mixed reviews and performed poorly in the box office. In 2000, the book was adapted into a BBC radio dramatization. In 2013, it was adapted in a ballet at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, choreographed by Lila York. And two years later, it was adapted into a stage play. Both the ballet and stage adaptation were reviewed as lacking the emotional intensity of the novel. However, in 2017, the Hulu adaptation, perhaps the most visible and consumed of The Handmaid’s Tale adaptations, was met was incredible critical and audience reception. In June 2019, its third season will begin. The Handmaid’s Tale has not been performed in the United States since 2003. This year, and in 2020 and 2021, several new productions are in the works at San Francisco Opera and the Royal Danish Opera. Boston Lyric Opera’s upcoming production will feature Anne Bogart as the stage director. Currently, she is the co-Founding & Artistic Director of SITI Company with Tadashi Suzuki. Bogart is also known for creating the Viewpoints acting method. This method is based in dance and physical theatre, using improvisational techniques to build ensemble-centered work. Today, Bogart heads Columbia University’s Graduate Directing program and has written several texts on theatre and directing. She has directed at regional theatres across the country, including American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA. She has been the recipient of numerous major theatrical accolades including two Obie Awards for Best Direction. Her work ranges from classical to devised plays, with experience in opera as well including Norma at Washington National Opera (2015) and Carmen at Glimmerglass Opera (2011). Bogart is one of the most accomplished theatrical directors and teachers in the world, a force needed to bring such a massive, nuanced opera to life.
DISCUSS: How do you think all these elements will come together to give you the experience of The Handmaid’s Tale in 2019, in a gymnasium at Harvard with a story by Margaret Atwood, a score by Poul Ruders, and staging by Anne Bogart?
STAY PRESENT Atwood’s dystopia of Gilead was not intended to be a distant or unfamiliar one. Based in World History and social criticism, perhaps Atwood offers an opportunity to understand how far we have or have not come as a society today. Ruders' transformation of the novel into an opera can connect audiences emotionally to the world Atwood created. If we think of the production as a prompt, it’s up to each individual to consider where they see themselves and see our society’s future. Her cautionary tale was ranked as #37 on the American Library Association’s List of Most Challenged Books, mostly in high schools, often for its critique of traditional values and descriptive sexual violence. However, this indicates an important significance to what Atwood’s writing, as it being challenged finds parallels in her novel, as some view her writing as a threat to conservative values and as a defamation to women. With an episodic version of The Handmaid’s Tale available on Hulu, Atwood’s tale is more accessible than ever. At its most distilled, The Handmaid’s Tale takes casually held attitudes about women and their role in society to a terrifying, literal end. Today women are
still paid less than men, state and federal governments are still debating women’s reproductive rights, and sexism continues to occur systematically across the country. Atwood lays out how the abuse of power stems from attitudes bubbling under the surface. Sexism is often underscored by fundamentalist views of religious texts, and patriarchal belief that men are more capable than women in positions of power. Sales of The Handmaid’s Tale have gone up 200% since the 2016 presidential election, and numerous articles have gone on to compare Atwood’s dystopia to our current socio political moment. Activists have even dressed as Handmaids to protest Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 confirmation hearing amidst sexual assault allegations. We are in a moment where more civil liberties are being threatened and there is imminent environmental decay, and as we look ahead one can consider Atwood’s text as a impetus to do something about it. Atwood does not end the story without promise. Resistance against oppressive forces is rampant today, and less hidden than the resistance in The Handmaid’s Tale. Presenting The Handmaid’s Tale at Boston Lyric Opera enters artists into this dialogue. Artists and arts organizations, as custodians of culture, are responding
DISCUSS: What specific issues around this story are you most interested in learning about, discussing, advocating, and making change in? Why do these specific issues speak to you?
Women’s Liberation March, 1970, D.C
to a sense of social responsibility to engage in the pressing social dialogue of our time. The arts engage in grappling with challenging questions and present a point of view, which may provoke strong emotion, critique, and dialogue. Artists make meaning of the world around them and tell compelling stories. Audiences engage with the arts for many reasons, including to make meaning of their own worldview, to find common ground in others stories, or for catharsis. For The Handmaid’s Tale, Boston Lyric Opera has partnered with two local organizations–Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and Casa Myrna. These organizations offer medical, legal, and social resources and support to survivors of rape and domestic violence, as well as a variety of prevention and outreach programs aimed at educating youth and adults. BLO acknowledges that while we bring up these sensitive issues through the presentation of our operas, we are not the experts in them. Therefore, the partnership with BARCC and Casa Myrna brings awareness, training, and support as we present, rehearse, and perform the work, as well as engage our audiences in these issues and challenging conversations. Wage Gap: A 2017 study by the Boston Women’s Workforce Council showed that women earn an average of $73,327 to men’s $97,062, or 76 cents to the male dollar.
Women’s March on Washington, 2017, D.C
LISTEN UP! Poul Ruders, as a late 20th and early 21st century composer, has naturally been influenced by other composers, both his contemporaries and those who have come before him. Listen to these examples and see if you can hear the musical influences. What other musical influences do you hear in his music that aren’t mentioned here? Ritual and Riot Composer Igor Stravinsky had a vision for his ballet, The Rite of Spring , “I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” The premiere caused riots in the theater during its world premiere on May 29, 1913 in Paris, with audiences scandalized by both the content and the musical sound world. Compare Stravinsky’s depiction of the “Dance of the Young Girls” with Ruders musical description of the women in the Red Center. What musical influences do you hear? The Rite of Spring – The Augurs of Spring, Dance of the Young Girls
The Red Center Prelude, Scene 1: The Classroom
Commander in Power Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 opera, Susannah, tells the story of a beautiful Tennessee girl who innocently incites the lust of her church Elders, leading to her denouncement as a sinner. The Reverend’s concern for Susannah turns into desire as he tries to manipulate her. In both Susannah and The Handmaid’s Tale the male characters that hold the most power are sung by low voices. “I’m a lonely man, Susannah”
Act 1, Scene 12: The Commander’s Study
Scare Tactic Bernard Hermann composed the score to the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. What instruments and other techniques did he use to create this iconic sound evoking an unnerving and suspenseful feeling? How does Ruders borrow from this sound world to elicit similar feelings in his score? Theme to Psycho
Act 2, Scene 16: The Salvaging
Amazing Grace is a protestant hymn that was made popular during The Second Great Awakening reformation in the United States in the early 19th century. Music critic, Thomas May explains that the hymn, “Amazing Grace” is used throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, to mirror Gilead’s own enforced perversion. In Atwood’s novel, Offred sings it to herself in her head. Listen to the melody and then listen to how Ruders incorporates it into the score of his opera. Amazing Grace
Act 1, Scene 9: The Ceremony
GENERAL QUESTIONS TO GUIDE YOUR LISTENING • What instruments are playing? • How fast is the music? Are there sudden changes in speed? Is the rhythm steady or unsteady? • Key/Mode: Is it major or minor? (Does it sound bright, happy, sad, urgent, dangerous?) • Dynamics/Volume: Is the music loud or soft? Are there sudden changes in volume (either in the voice or orchestra)? • What is the shape of the melodic line? Does the voice move smoothly or does it make frequent or erratic jumps? Do the vocal lines move noticeably downward or upward? • Does the type of voice singing (baritone, soprano, tenor, mezzo, etc.) have an effect on you as a listener? • Do the melodies end as you would expect or do they surprise you? • How does the music make you feel? What effect do the above factors have on you as a listener? • What is the orchestra doing in contrast to the voice? How do they interact? • What kinds of images, settings, or emotions come to mind? Does it remind you of anything you have experienced in your own life? • Do particularly emphatic notes (low, high, held, etc.) correspond to dramatic moments? • What type of character fits this music? Romantic? Comic? Serious? Etc. 24
GET INFORMED Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) Casa Myrna National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
GET SUPPORT Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from asexual assault service provider in your area. You’ll be routed to a local RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) affiliate organization based on the first six digits of your phone number. Cell phone callers have the option to enter the ZIP code of their current location to more accurately locate the nearest sexual assault service provider. 24/7 Hotline: 800-841-8371 or chat online 9:00 a.m.–11:00 p.m. for free. BARCC offers confidential support services for yourself or if you are worried about a friend. Services include a listening ear, hospital accompaniment, counseling and legal services. Call Safe Link 1-877-785-2020 Safe Link is Massachusetts' Statewide Domestic Violence Prevention Hotline operated by Casa Myrna Additional Resources for men, teens, and members of the LGBTQ+ community TAKE ACTION
Tips for supporting friend or family member who has experienced sexual assault or domestic violence:
Volunteer at BARCC or Casa Myrna: Get trained to work the hotline, be a medical advocate, do community outreach and education, work events, or fundraise.
Don’t: ask questions like: what we’re you wearing? We’re you drinking? Are you sure it was rape?
Get trained to prevent sexual violence:
Do: believe the survivor no matter what and tell them that. Ask questions like, “do you need anything from me? What would help you feel safe now?”
BARCC’s Community Awareness and Prevention Services (CAPS) program provides education and training to schools, college campuses, police, businesses, community-based organizations, and communities BARCC offers workshops specific for all ages.
Don’t: force the survivor to go to the police or the hospital or the school.
Host an Outreach Table:
Don’t: comment on who the perpetrator was or say things like “I can’t believe they would do that!”
Help raise awareness about BARCC’s and Casa Myrna's services and reach more survivors. Be a youth advocate to educate your community on sexual violence:
Do: offer the option to do so, and offer to come along, and support their decisions on how they would like to proceed.
Do: support them with the information they have given you. Don’t: tell anybody else. Do: ask if there is anybody they would like to tell and if they would like you to support them.
BARCC Youth Leadership Corps
Don’t: treat them like they are damaged.
Casa Myrna Youth Peer Leader Program
Do: acknowledge their bravery for telling you, continue to invite them out and have unrelated conversations. Don’t expect them to heal immediately, however, validate their feelings and their healing process. 25
BOOKS Margaret, A. (1998). The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books.
MAGAZINES Boston Lyric Opera Coda Magazine (Spring 2019) https://issuu.com/bostonlyricopera/docs/blo_codaspring19_web Mead, R. (2017, April). Margaret Atwood, The Prophet of Dystopia. New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/17/margaret-atwood-the-prophet-of-dystopia?mbid=social_facebook Platt, R. (2017, May 28). Revisiting “The Handmaid’s Tale” the Opera. New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/revisiting-the-handmaids-tale-the-opera Rampton, M. (2008). Four-Waves of Feminism. Pacific University Oregon. https://www.pacificu.edu/about/media/four-waves-feminism Ziv, S. (2017, April 28). Challenges and Bans of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ aren’t really just about sex or profanity. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/challenges-and-bans-handmaids-tale-arent-really-just-about-sex-or-profanity-591907
NEWSPAPER ARTICLES Alter, A. (2018, October 18). How Feminist Dystopian Fiction is Channeling Women’s Anger and Anxiety. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/08/books/feminist-dystopian-fiction-margaret-atwood-women-metoo.html Atwood, M. (2017, March 12). Margaret Atwood on What “The Handmaid’s Tale” Means in the Age of Trump. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/books/review/margaret-atwood-handmaids-tale-age-of-trump.html Blake, M. (2017, April 14). ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has inspired several adaptations through the years. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/la-ca-st-handmaids-tale-sidebar-20170414-story.html Chiorazzi, A. (2016, October 20). Harvard’s Religious Past. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/10/harvards-religious-past/ Tommasini, A. (2003, May 15). Opera Review: Erie Echo of Present in Futurist Fantasy. New York Times. https://www.nytimes. com/2003/05/14/arts/opera-review-eerie-echo-of-present-in-futurist-fantasy.html Walker, C. H. (2018, June 10). What the Salem witches can teach us about how we treat women today. Washington Post. https://www. washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2018/06/10/what-the-salem-witches-can-teach-us-about-how-we-treat-womentoday/?noredirect=on Weigel, M. (2017, April 26). We Live in the Reproductive Dystopia of “The Handmaid’s Tale”. New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/we-live-in-the-reproductive-dystopia-of-the-handmaids-tale
INTERVIEWS Atwood, M. (2016, April 16). An Interview with Margaret Atwood on her Novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” [Interview]. https://web.archive. org/web/20160413050007/http://www.library.nashville.org/nashvillereads/margaretatwood_interview_handmaidstale.pdf
WEBSITES Margaret Atwood. (2019). Retrieved from http://margaretatwood.ca/ Bogart, A. (2012). Anne Bogart. Retrieved from http://www.kennedy-center.org/Artist/A82975 People & Ideas: The Puritans. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/people/puritans.html
ENCYCLOPEDIAS McVicar, M. J. (2016, March). The Religious Right in America. In Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Retrieved from http://oxfordre.com/religion/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-97 Oziewicz, M. (2017, March). Speculative Fiction. In Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Retrieved from http://oxfordre.com/literature/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.001.0001/acrefore-9780190201098-e-78
REPORTS Environmental Issues in the 1980s(Rep.). (1985, February 15). http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document. php?id=cqresrre1985021400
NOTES TO PREPARE FOR THE OPERA You will see a full dress rehearsal–an insider’s look into the final moments of preparation before an opera premieres. The singers will be in full costume and makeup, the opera will be fully staged, and a full orchestra will accompany the singers, who may choose to “mark,” or not sing in full voice, in order to save their voices for the performances. A final dress rehearsal is often a complete run-through, but there is a chance the director or conductor will ask to repeat a scene or section of music. This is the last opportunity the performers have to rehearse with the orchestra before opening night, and they therefore need this valuable time to work. The following will help you better enjoy your experience of a night at the opera: • Arrive on time! Latecomers will be seated only at suitable breaks in the performance and often not until intermission. • Dress in what you are comfortable in so that you may enjoy the performance. For some, that means dressing up in a suit or gown, for others, jeans and a polo shirt fit the bill. Generally “dressy-casual” is what people wear. Live theater is usually a little more formal than a movie theater. Please do not take off your shoes or put your feet on the seat in front of you. • Respect your fellow opera lovers by not leaning forward in your seat so as to block the person’s view behind you, and by turning off (not on vibrate) cell phones and other electronic devices that could make noise during the performance. Lit screens are also very distracting to your neighbors, so please keep your phone out of sight until the house lights come up. • Taking photos or making audio or video recordings is strictly forbidden. • Do not chew gum, eat, drink, or talk while the rehearsal is in session. If you must visit the restroom during the performance, please exit quickly and quietly. • At the very beginning of the opera, the concertmaster of the orchestra will ask the oboist to play the note “A.” You will hear all the other musicians in the orchestra tune their instruments to match the oboe’s “A.” • After all the instruments are tuned, the conductor will arrive. Be sure to applaud! • Feel free to applaud or shout Bravo! at the end of an aria or chorus piece if you liked it. The end of a piece can be identified by a pause in the music. Singers love an appreciative audience! • It’s OK to laugh when something is funny! • When translating songs and poetry in particular, much can be lost due to a change in rhythm, inflection and rhyme of words. For this reason, opera is usually performed in its original language. In order to help audiences enjoy the music and follow every twist and turn of the plot, English supertitles are projected.
• Sit back, relax and let the action on stage pull you in. As an audience member, you are essential to the art form of opera—without you, there is no show!
HAVE FUN AND ENJOY THE OPERA!
Boston Opera House
• Listen for subtleties in the music. The tempo, volume, and complexity of the music and singing depict the feelings or actions of the characters. Also, notice repeated words or phrases; they are usually significant.