Discover: The Handmaid's Tale

A powerful adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel, The Handmaid’s Tale opera tells the story of main character, Offred: a resilient woman in the dystopian Republic of Gilead. Stripped of her rights, she is one of many Handmaids forced to bear children for ruling Commanders. Offred’s daily struggle against oppression and her brave defiance of the regime’s control are central themes within the opera’s plot, symbolising the courage and resilience of the human spirit. 

Poul Ruders’ musical composition – influenced by medieval chants and gospel – coupled with Paul Bentley’s minimalist libretto, vividly portrays the harshness of Gilead’s regime.  

Discover more about The Handmaid’s Tale opera here, as we share a detailed summary of this thought-provoking tale. Find out key details that provide context and meaning to the story, including an introduction to the characters, and previews of the opera’s songs and costumes ahead of this season’s ENO performances. 

Synopsis of The Handmaid’s Tale Opera

OUR PRESENT

We attend the Symposium Prologue 2195 AD.

International Historical Association Twelfth Symposium on the Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States of America).

Today’s keynote lecture: A recently discovered Gilead diary ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ recorded on period audio cassettes.

Today’s keynote speaker: Professor Pieixoto

Professor Pieixoto of Cambridge University introduces to us a recently discovered audio diary, recorded by an unnamed Handmaid in hiding. Playing the first tape, we hear her telling her tale…

In the early years of 21st-century America, appalled by widespread physical, moral and spiritual pollution – and, above all, by the low birth-rate caused by the climate crisis – right-wing fundamentalists have assassinated the President and members of the Congress and installed their own Bible-based dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead. They have denied women the right to work or possess property, to read or write. Furthermore, all women of child-bearing age living in sin or second marriages are forcibly separated from their families and sent off to indoctrination centres, run by ‘Aunts’. There, the women become Handmaids, to be posted to selected privileged childless households and ritually impregnated by the husband in the presence of his wife.

Our Handmaiden has been torn from her husband Luke (it was his second marriage) and their five-year-old daughter and taken to the Red Centre.

THE HANDMAID’S PRESENT

The Red Centre Prelude

Classes are run by Aunt Lydia. Our Handmaid’s friend, Moira, is dragged back after a failed escape attempt. Another woman, Janine, breaks down and thinks she’s back working in a diner again. Moira escapes a second time. The Handmaids graduate.

Act I

Our Handmaid, who has not yet borne a child for Gilead, transfers to her next posting where she is known as Offred (Of Fred) after the Commander of the house. She recognises his wife as Serena Joy, who was a famous gospel singer in the time before Gilead. She meets the staff members of the household: Nick, a chauffeur, and Rita, a Martha or housekeeper. Memories of her life before Gilead when she met Luke, fell in love, and had a daughter invade Offred’s mind. Her Mother warned her of the dangers to come and she recalls the downfall of Congress and the riots as martial law was established.

Offred goes shopping paired with another Handmaid, Ofglen. They meet Janine, now called Ofwarren, who is heavily pregnant. When Offred visits the doctor, he offers to impregnate her. She declines, fearfully. At home, the chauffeur Nick attempts to talk to Offred, and the Commander enters her bedroom – both are illegal acts. Offred undergoes her monthly ritual impregnation. Afterwards, Nick tells her the Commander wants to see her privately, which is strictly forbidden.

The following day, all the Wives and Handmaids from the district meet at the Red Centre to witness the birth of Ofwarren’s baby. Offred begins to hallucinate that her past life is happening before her eyes. Back home, Offred visits the Commander in his office at night.

Interval of 20 minutes

Act II

Next morning, Rita finds Offred lying motionless and overreacts. The Commander caresses Offred during the next ritual impregnation, and she is terrified Serena Joy will notice and she will be sent to the Colonies for hard labour until she dies. Offred and Ofglen go prayer-shopping and discover they are both rebels. Ofglen reveals that there is an underground movement whose sign is Mayday. Ofwarren, whose baby turned out to be very ill and was euthanised, is beyond help. Guards take her away to be killed.

Offred’s night visits to the Commander continue. He explains things: why Rita overreacted, for instance – the previous Handmaiden killed herself.

Desperate for a child, Serena Joy secretly bribes Offred to try getting pregnant by Nick. The bribe is a photo of Offred’s missing daughter. Offred reluctantly agrees. The Commander smuggles Offred into Jezebel’s, a private brothel for top-ranking men in Gilead. She meets Moira there.

Back home, Offred and Nick make love.

Wives and Handmaids gather to witness the hanging of ‘criminals’. The Handmaids are allowed to destroy a ‘rapist’. Ofglen starts by kicking him unconscious to spare him pain – he was, in fact, a fellow member of the underground movement.

That afternoon, Offred finds she has a new shopping partner; she never again meets Ofglen. She has killed herself rather than be exposed as part of the resistance. Serena Joy has learned about Offred’s affair with the Commander. The secret police, known as the Eyes of God, arrive to arrest Offred. Nick offers her a way to escape but what fate will she go to?

Epilogue 2195 AD

Professor Pieixoto tells us that the ultimate fate of Offred and the men in her life is unknown.

The Handmaid’s Tale Opera FAQs

The Handmaid’s Tale opera was written by Danish composer, Poul Ruders, alongside librettist, Paul Bentley. It’s story is based on Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed dystopian novel of the same name that was published in 1985. 

The Handmaid’s Tale opera was written in the year 2000 and premiered in Copenhagen in March that year. The first English language production premiered with the ENO in April 2003 at the London Coliseum and has since been performed around the world.

The Handmaid’s Tale opera is based on Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel, where a patriarchal dictatorship rules the Republic of Gilead and, women are little more than trophies. It follows the story of Handmaid Offred who is forced to reproduce for the Commander and her fight for freedom and identity in this new regime. 

The Handmaid’s Tale opera is set in the fictional Republic of Gilead a repressive society that has replaced the United States. This dystopian setting serves as the backdrop for the opera’s exploration of oppression, courage and survival, as it follows the journey of Offred: a Handmaid fighting for her identity and independence. 

Adapting Margaret Atwood’s novel to the stage, The Handmaid’s Tale opera is set in the near future. It blends elements of the past and present to create a dystopian society that echoes historical themes of oppression and control – giving it a chillingly relatable feel. 

No, The Handmaid’s Tale is not based on a true story. However, it serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of oppressive regimes and the importance of preserving individual rights in the real world.

Read the introductory guide to The Handmaid's Tale