THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley, adapted from the Margaret Atwood novel, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, conducted by Richard Bradshaw, with Stephanie Marshall, Helen Todd, Jean Stilwell, Kurt Link, Victor Micallef, Krisztina Szabó and Frédérique Vézina. Presented by the Canadian Opera Company and SuperDanish at the Hummingbird Centre (1 Front East). Opens tonight (Thursday, September 23) and runs September 29, October 1, 5, and 9 at 7:30 pm, matinee September 26 at 2 pm. $40-$175, discounts for youth and those 18 to 29. 416-872-2262. Rating: NNNNN
If you think that what's been happening in the United States is as scary as it can get, you probably don't know Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale.
Set in a dystopic future when the religious right has overthrown the American government and defined women as chattel, the story is a fearsome look at the morally rigid Republic of Gilead. The remaining fertile women, referred to as handmaids, are assigned to be baby producers for the ruling class.
The story's central character is Offred (read "of Fred," for her purpose is to bear a child to one of the ruling Commanders), who remembers her earlier freedom and, despite a stoic exterior, wants to resist her current slavery.
Acclaimed at its premiere in 2000, Danish composer Poul Ruders's opera based on the book was again applauded at its English premiere three years later. Appropriately, the Atwood story comes home as the Canadian Opera Company's season opener.
"Our director, Phyllida Lloyd, remembers that at its first performances the audience's reaction was a skeptical 'as if,'" says American bass Kurt Link, who plays the Commander.
"Then September 11 and its aftermath happened. The reaction at the London premiere was totally different.
"Atwood's cautionary story reveals her amazing prescience about the power of fundamentalist Christians in the States. And it's not just one group that she's drawn upon; for in this horror story she's combined repressive aspects of the Taliban and Stalinist Russia."
"It's a very 'what if' tale," adds Victor Micallef, a recent addition to the COC's Ensemble Studio, "but we've already seen some of its realities."
Micallef's character, Luke, is in a sense the Commander's opposite: Offred's lover before the revolution, one she chose and whom she loves. Told through the handmaid's eyes, most of the narrative contrasts an idyllic, romantic past with a brutal present.
The two actors - who never meet onstage except in one scene where Offred's happy memories and bleak life clash - agree on the theatricality of the opera but admit that its score is a challenging one to present.
"What strikes me most about the music is the colours that Ruders uses," offers Link, who sees his Commander as a seemingly kindly man who occasionally reveals the monster within. The singer admits to using George W. Bush as a character model.
"Beyond the normal pit orchestra, the composer's added several electronic keyboards, one a conventional synthesizer and another that can do various electronic effects.
"Then he uses six or seven percussionists who do everything from drop chains to create various kind of 'boing' sounds."
"At times it sounds almost tribal," continues Micallef, "with a strong, pulsing rocklike beat that suggests a heart. And while there are no conventional arias, Ruders weaves in melodies we know, like a Bach melody and the hymn Amazing Grace. These get turned around and made dissonant in order to contrast past and present."
The 38-scene, multimedia work's not only challenging rhythmically for the singers. They also have to act, help with scene changes and communicate the text. Having surtitles will help the audience follow what's being said, but there's a lot of aural competition with the large orchestra.
"There's nothing more frustrating than listening to a work sung in your own language and not being able to understand it," smiles Link.
And then there's the sex onstage, with the challenge of being dramatically convincing in your acting while a metronome's ticking away in your head so you can keep up with the music. It's one of the reasons why The Handmaid's Tale isn't what Link calls a "park and bark" opera, where singing is everything. The piece won't work, in fact, if the singers don't interact with each other.
Practically all the men have sex scenes, which for a tenor like Micallef isn't unusual in the opera world. Think about the usual pairing of sopranos and tenors.
"But a bass like me rarely gets within three metres of a woman onstage," marvels Link. "Usually I can eat raw onions before I go onstage and not worry about offending anyone.
"Here, I have to watch my diet. My sex scenes may be brief - the Commander has a problem - but they have to be convincing."