Arias, Interludes and Postlude from The Handmaid’s Tale
I have compiled in Offred Suite the five arias sung by Offred, the heroine in my opera The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the novel by Magaret Atwod, with libretto by Paul Bentley.
Offred’s tale takes place during the fundamentalist regime of Gilead, the former USA, a mono-theocratic dictatorship in the first half of the 21st century, which has stifled all personal and intellectual freedom of women. In the opera Offred sings of her passion, her suffering in captivity, torn apart from her husband Luke and their 5-year old daughter.
Offred Suite opens with the very first bars of the opera and the first aria, I’m sorry, my story is in fragments. Offred begins her tale by apologizing for it being halting and fragmented. She is “speaking” to us, while in hiding, on an series of audio-cassette tapes found nearly two centuries later. It transpires that she was a so-called Handmaid, a slave to a prominent Commander called Fred, hence her adopted name Offred, literally of-Fred. We are never told her real name.
In the second aria, What was that? What was that? A signal? An attack?, Offred is frightened because she suddenly finds her Commander standing in the doorway of her room. Then he is gone. This is unsettling because no man, not even a Commander, is allowed in the room of a Handmaid. Offred does not know what to make of it. Towards the end of the aria, she spots a strange message carved on the back of one of the closet doors: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”. Offred learns later that this means don’t let the bastards grind you down.
All Handmaids are subjected to monthly check-ups by a doctor, looking for signs of pregnancy. Once every month the girls are ritually – and downright physically – impregnated by their Commanders; the Handmaid lies supine on top of the commander’s wife, while he does the necessary thing. But in the Republic of Gilead, most men are barren, due to severe nuclear radiation spills, a fact which is being rigorously denied by the authorities. In the third aria, Ev’ry moon I watch for blood, Offred laments, after one of her visits to the doctor, that she is not pregnant. That is a dangerous state of affairs; she is in her third “posting” and if she does not succeed in having a child, she will be deported to one of the abandoned nuclear power plants to clean up waste, and death from radiation is a sure thing.
Hushed, and slightly rocking, Offred sings her fourth aria, I would like to steal something. She finds herself in the living room of Serena Joy, wife of her Commander. Though Offred is not supposed to be there on her own, she lingers and contemplates stealing something, out of sheer spite, and take it with her upstairs to her room.
All ruthless dictatorships spawn underground resistance movements – in Gilead there is Mayday. Towards the end of her tale Offred is accused of conspiring with Mayday and of crimes against the State, and she is arrested by the Secret Police, the so-called Eyes. But in a split-second, right before she is being manhandled into the waiting police van, the chauffeur Nick, with whom she has had a passionate and desperate love affair, whispers in her ear “it is all riht, go with them, it is Mayday.” Offred then sings her last aria, totally unaccompanied: Whether this is my end or a new beginng…, and she ends her tale by feebly singing the words:”…and so I steå into the darkness; or else the light.” In other words, we do not know if she is in fact saved by Mayday or if it is a cruel ruse. And we shall never know.
The five arias are interwoven with orchestral Interludes from the opera, and Offred Suite ends, as does the opera, with a Postlude for full orchestra.
- Poul Ruders.