“Terrific stuff… an irresistible insight into the creative process…” Sunday Times

British librettist Paul Bentley tells the riveting story of how he and composer Poul Ruders turned Margaret Atwood’s famous novel The Handmaid’s Tale into an award-winning opera, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, best known for her production of Mamma Mia! Plus Ruders’ own detailed analysis of his score, illustrated with 25 music examples.

A Handmaid’s Diary is published by Edition Wilhelm Hansen and is available from Waterstones, etc., and from musicroom.com at £10.95 and in other currencies.


A Handmaid’s Diary ends with an Epilogue about productions of The Handmaid’s Tale opera in London and America – see below.

(Further information follows the Epilogue - see below.)





Fifty feet above me the shopfront of Borders Books carried a massive billboard featuring the US flag, the Statue of Liberty, a huge eagle and the words, "Bless our armed forces". "God" however had been cut - atheists have rights and buy books.

I was in downtown Minneapolis, awaiting the American premiere of The Handmaid's Tale opera just a week after the last night of the British premiere at English National Opera. Poul Ruders, the composer, and myself, the librettist, had flown to the Twin Cities as guests of Minnesota Opera, and I was calming first-night nerves with a spot of sight-seeing.

That billboard embodied two strands in American society – the pc preference and fervent patriotism. Missing was right-wing Christianity, the kind that sticks Jesus is a Republican on car bumpers, the element which has many people worried, not least the author Margaret Atwood. Yet back in 1985 she was highly amused by the initial reactions to her Orwellian novel. In Britain they said, "Jolly good yarn". In Canada, "Could it happen here?" In America, "How long have we got?"

In Britain admittedly Atwood's vision of "Gilead", a nation taken over by a right-wing Christian dictatorship, seems improbable - Christian fundamentalism is confined to the Outer Hebrides. But in the USA it is flourishing: an American Jewish music lecturer known to me was forced by anti-semitic ultra-conservatism to leave his Texas university and settle in England. No wonder many fear Atwood's vision is nigh. No wonder Minnesota Opera decided America needed to see the show.

The Twin Cities, each glorified by a soaring spoonful of Manhattan, are the double heart of Minnesota. St. Paul was originally Catholic and Minneapolis Lutheran, with the mighty Mississippi to keep the twins apart. In fact, as in the Hebrides, there is no detectable sectarian animosity. But there is plenty of religion: 60% of Americans are church members and the figure is growing. In Britain the figure is 48% and declining.

Minnesota Opera chiefs were well aware that Handmaid was hot. So they announced that the production was not meant as a political statement and the opera wasn't anti-right-wing or anti-fundamentalist. The local Star Tribune commented, "Sorry, but it is". In the ENO programme Michael Walling pulled no punches. In the light of the war on Iraq he felt that the world of the opera was "horribly close"; the USA, always the home of militant Puritanism, had under born-again Christian President Bush "grown closer and closer to Gilead". As my Californian cousin remarked, "For the first time in my life I am afraid of the US government".

The audience at an "Art and Political Discourse Forum" in Minneapolis would have agreed with him. They couldn't wait to see the opera because it would articulate, forcefully, the dangers of the Bush phenomenon. They were appalled by the spectacle of Gilead slouching towards Washington to be born, not of bombs and tanks but a boxful of dimpled chads. As the novel puts it, there is freedom to and freedom from. Post 9/11 freedom to is dwindling: college students banned from booing the President, school-children interrogated by the Secret Service for threatening the President, a television interview faded out because a speaker was criticizing the Administration. Mind you, some freedoms are growing; in Minnesota the Republican Governor recently passed a law permitting more citizens to carry concealed guns.

Light relief from politics and religion came when major patrons of Minnesota Opera gave a pre-dress rehearsal soirée for dozens of fellow donors at their stupendous home in the Great Gatsby district of St. Paul. The evening was benevolent democratic capitalism in full flood: a butler at the door, a sweeping double staircase from the hall to the Organ Ballroom, live Muzak from a string quartet, a 2000-dollar ring for a Lucky Draw lady donor, party bags donated by sponsors and - top of the bill - the Novelist, Composer and Librettist corralled and grilled as a trio for the first time.

Mid-interview I remarked that a particular house in the novel was a quarter the size of the overwhelming one we were foregathered in. "No, it was the same size," corrected the author, collecting a nice laugh. From the floor a donor asked why Atwood had set Handmaid in the USA and not in her native Canada. "I had to have somewhere for Offred to escape to." Witty lady.

Off to see the show. How did the productions compare? Utterly different, equally good. In London Phyllida Lloyd's version was beautiful, precise and clinical; a Bang & Olufsen world with red, green, blue and black costumes stark against white walls. In St. Paul Eric Simonson's version was ugly, post-civil war, post-nuclear horror; a German Expressionist world with people and clothes bleached and drab against the harshly-lit set. Over here the Handmaid heroine was a scarlet nun. Over there she was a beige menial.

Critical reaction in London was mixed: a rave, much modified rapture, and a select collection of hatchet jobs. In the Independent on Sunday Anna Picard, sole woman critic among the British quality press, detected male sexism at work: "I do wonder what to make of an opera where the critical response has been seemingly determined by gender." Maybe Yankee pc ain't so bad.

Secular critics were no help. In a recent Guardian, composer James MacMillan wrote of a BBC2 Late Review some years ago, where critics who had no problem discussing literature, film, visual arts and theatre came a cropper over Berg's Wozzeck. No change there: in a BBC2 Newsnight Review of The Handmaid's Tale opera the panel (Rosie Boycott, Paul Morley, Bill Buford) spectacularly confirmed MacMillan's claim that "music is no longer an essential aspect of any self-respecting person's education". We got gems like "opera doesn't suit English", blithely dismissing all Britten's operas plus Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

As for political relevance, some British critics thought the "liberal grandstanding" overdone but in America they were more wary. "Eerie Echo of Present in Futurist Fantasy" was the New York Times headline; and the review in USA Today began by speaking of the "shockingly contemporary resonance" of Atwood's nightmarish story. "Think Arthur Miller's The Crucible," it counselled, "presided over by the Taliban". Heidi Waleson in the Wall Street Journal agreed that the opera was a cautionary tale but argued that it used music to deepen and humanize the title character, thereby taking it beyond polemic. By making the Handmaid heroine so compelling the composer had "elevated the tale beyond grim futuristic fiction into art".

High praise for Ruders' score has been a feature of all US reviews to date. Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times wrote that too many operas in recent years had been well conceived but musically negligible. "The Handmaid's Tale is dramatically convoluted, no argument there. But it is so musically inventive that you get pulled in anyway." He concluded, "Add The Handmaid's Tale to the list of recent works that the Metropolitan Opera should feel obliged to present".

And the punters? In both countries some hated it or couldn't take it and left at the interval. Tears were common - the opera is profoundly disturbing, and one Minnesota Opera subscriber complained that it was morally objectionable. Most people were gripped and stimulated; one American said she had never heard so much discussion by an opera audience; the wait for the Ladies Room had never been so interesting.

Best of all, for me, was the reaction of British schoolchildren studying the novel for A Level. Most had never been to an opera before and, to quote one teacher, the ENO show "defied their expectations". They were pin-drop throughout, got all the jokes (there are some) and at the end howled their approval, as at a rock concert. No Puritans there.

A final thought. In the novel the emblem of the secret police is an eye, taken from the pyramid eye on a one dollar bill. Life echoes Art: that same all-seeing eye is now the logo of the Department of Homeland Security. God bless America.

Paul Bentley


The Handmaid's Tale opera won the Paul Reumert Award, the Cannes Classical Award, and was nominated for two 2002 Grammy Awards (Best Opera Recording and Best Classical Contemporary Composition). The Dacapo recording is available on 2 cds (8.224165-66).

“Add The Handmaid's Tale to the list of recent works that the Metropolitan Opera should feel obliged to present…” New York Times

“…the most important addition to the operatic repertoire since – well, certainly since John Adams' Nixon in China. But perhaps even further back than that…” The Independent


Kafka’s Trial, Bentley and Ruders' second opera, based on Kafka's lovelife and on his novel The Trial, had its world premiere at Copenhagen's brand new opera house in 2005. The Dacapo recording of Kafka's Trial is available on 2 cds (8.226042-43).

Paul Bentley has also written a libretto for the composer Anna Sokolovic, based on The Midnight Court, the famous Irish comic poem. The Midnight Court was commissioned by the Queen of Puddings opera company in Canada, and the opera premiered in Toronto in 2005. The Toronto production appeared at the Linbury Studio of the Royal Opera Covent Garden in June 2006.

Another libretto, Bird of Night, was commissioned by the Royal Opera Covent Garden. The composer was Dominique Le Gendre and the opera was based on the legends of the Caribbean. The world premiere was at the Linbury Studio of the Royal Opera in October 2006.

Paul also wrote Ines, a libretto for the Canadian composer James Rolfe, again for the Queen of Puddings company. The opera premiered in Toronto in February 2009.

Paul's latest libretto was for the American composer Gregg Wramage; it's based on William Trevor's novel Death in Summer.