Margaret Atwood talks about ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ opera and why the dystopian classic still resonates

Author Margaret Atwood (center), with composer Poul Ruders, who wrote the opera based on her book “The Handmaid's Tale,’’ and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who sings the role of Offred in the Boston Lyric Opera's production. –Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

“Any country can become authoritarian given a certain set of conditions. You know, it can happen anywhere. And I put [‘The Handmaid’s Tale’] in a place in the United States that prided itself on being very open, liberal, and democratic,’’ Margaret Atwood told the crowd at WBUR’s CitySpace on Saturday afternoon. “And that would be here.’’

Atwood was back in Massachusetts — the setting of her classic novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale’’ — for the East Coast premiere of Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “The Handmaid’s Tale’’ opera. The best-selling author joined composer Poul Ruders and WBUR ARTery senior editor Maria Garcia for a sold-out conversation on the project.


The dystopian novel features a totalitarian United States where fertile women, known as “handmaids,’’ are stripped of their rights and forced to bare powerful men’s children, to be raised by their infertile wives.

Originally published in 1985, the story has taken on a new life in recent years. The Emmy-winning TV adaptation is headed into its third season on Hulu, and the novel resurfaced on bestseller lists. Protesters have begun wearing the story’s signature red cloaks in response to political attacks on women’s reproductive rights. Atwood has announced that she’s working on a sequel, titled “The Testaments.’’

“After I read the book, I immediately recognized the huge operatic potential,’’ Ruders said. “Such as, I mean, multiple varieties of human emotion and relentless ongoing drama of universal importance, sadly enough. And a protagonist — Offred, obviously — whose introverted courage even in her seemingly hopeless situation . . . stands out, calling out for our admiration and even love.’’

The afternoon featured a performance from mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who portrays Offred, with musical accompaniment from librettist Paul Bentley.

When asked by Garcia about what brings her joy these days, Atwood said, “This opera is attracting an audience that is quite different from some of the audiences that are part of the standard opera audiences. There’s a lot of young people, who don’t usually go to the opera and never have gone to the opera before.’’


“What I’m happy about right now is the generation of let’s say under 25, particularly the ones who have become politically articulate about things like gun control and the extinction resistance, which is now sweeping through high schools and colleges,’’ Atwood continued.

“About the United States . . . I don’t think it’s just going to roll over,’’ she said, referring to the youth activists she’s witnessed. “You know, I think it’s going to be harder to do totalitarianism here than in a lot of other places, partly because of the history and traditions, and partly because it’s so diverse. You can’t just get ahold of one demographic of people and convince them all to do your will. Multiplicity is actually a strength under these conditions.’’

Atwood also attended opening night of the opera on Sunday. In the audience that night was ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov, who came to support his daughter, Shura Baryshnikov, the opera’s movement director. Shura Baryshnikov’s mother, Academy Award-winner Jessica Lange, was in town for the opera’s final dress rehearsal.

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