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Philip Glass

Publisher: Chester Music

Waiting for the Barbarians (2005)
Commissioned by the Erfurt Theater, Erfurt (Germany)
Work Notes
Opera in two acts. Libretto (English) by Christopher Hampton based on the novel by J.M Coetzee.
Text Writer
Christopher Hampton based on the novel by J.M Coetzee
Dunvagen Music Publishers Inc
Opera and Music Theatre
Sub Category
Grand Opera
Year Composed
2 Hours 10 Minutes
Principal: 2 sopranos, 2 baritones, 2 basses
Solo Instrument(s)
Secondary: 4 tenors, 2 baritones, 1 child
Programme Note
Philip Glass Waiting for the Barbarians (2005)
Magistrate/Prefect - baritone
Colonel Joll - baritone
Warrant Officer Mandel - bass
Barbarian Girl - mezzo-soprano
Cook - soprano

John Coetzee, the South African writer and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature 2003, first published Waiting for the Barbarians as a novel in 1980. I contacted John Coetzee about adapting his book into an opera back in 1991 and made my first treatment of the opera that same year. I'd begun to do this kind of social/political opera in 1979 with Satyagraha, an opera that takes place in South Africa, concerning the life of Gandhi and the possibility of social change through non-violence.

My aim then, as it is now, was to preserve Coetzee's bold allegorical approach while dramatizing the classic themes of confrontation, crisis and redemption so the audience itself is left weighing the meaning of good and evil in their own lives. To reduce the opera to a single historical circumstance or a particular political regime misses the point. That the opera can become an occasion for dialogue about political crisis illustrates the power of art to turn our attention toward the human dimension of history.
© Philip Glass

Waiting for the Barbarians is a harrowing allegory of the war between oppressors and the oppressed.

The protagonist is a loyal civil servant who conscientiously runs the affairs of a tiny frontier garrison town, ignoring the threat of impending war with the "barbarians", a neighboring tribe of nomads. But with the arrival of a special unit of the Civil Guard spreading the rumor that the barbarians are preparing to attack, he becomes witness to the cruel and illegal treatment of prisoners of war. Torture is used to obtain confessions from the barbarian prisoners, thus "proving" the necessity of the planned campaign against the tribe.

Jolted into sympathy for the victims, the old man decides to take a stand. He attempts to maintain a final shred of decency and dignity by bringing home a barbarian girl, crippled by torture and nearly blind, and subsequently returning her to her people - an act of individual amends. This dangerous, exhausting expedition brands him forever as a traitor, after which he himself becomes a victim of public humiliation and torture.

Preview Act I of the score:

Act II or the Vocal score.

  • Ensemble
    Theater Erfurt Chorus and Orchestra
    Richard Salter / Eugene Perry / Michael Tews/ Elvira Soukop / Kelly God / Marisca Mulder / Andreas Mitschke /
    Dennis Russell Davies
    Orange Montain Music:
Glass’s musical style now may seem unremarkable but it is dramatically effective; he is capable of dealing with scenarios that either trace a linear narrative or dispense with it altogether, and knows instinctively when to let the text carry the action forward and when the music needs to take charge. His latest project, given its first performance at Theater Erfurt on September 10, is emphatically a narrative piece. Waiting for the Barbarians has a libretto by Christopher Hampton based upon the 1980 novel by the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee. The text is sakilful, lucid and intelligently singable distillation of Coetzee’s allegory of colonialism… On stage throughout the opera, it’s a challenging role to sing, even though Glass’s vocal lines are smoothly contoured and have a natural expressive shape… Under Dennis Russell Davies the orchestral score, with its most striking moments reserved for a sequence of dream interludes, always sounded effective… a quietly effective and genuinely moving piece of moving storytelling.
Andrew Clements, Opera,01/03/2006
Philip Glass must be one of the most influential living composers, so when the world premiere of his new opera, Waiting for the Barbarians, took place in Erfurt on 10 September, many of his devotees were happy to make the pilgrimage there. Those who did were not disappointed. Closely following the 1980 novel of the same name by Nobel laureate JM Coetzee, the two-act opera, lasting two and a half hours with full orchestra, was Glass on form. He has written 21 operas now over a period of 29 years, half about the great and the good while half, such as this, are more about a situation than a specific person. An allegory for our age, the setting is a border town somewhere, happy with itself and its neighbours, which is suddenly taken over by Secret Army officials with a liking for torture, come to protect it from barbarians who do not arrive. All the violence and suffering are from the protectors rather than the imagined attackers. The opera was sung in English with German surtitles. The lead of the four main characters is the Magistrate, realistically brought to life by Richard Salter, who was on stage practically every minute. An Englishman living in Germany, Salter not only has stamina but perfect diction as well as a fine baritone. The evil Colonel Joll, wearing dark glasses, was beautifully realised by Glass stalwart Eugene Perry, energetically supported by his even nastier deputy Mandel, sung by bass Michael Tews. Counterbalancing the menace of frequent torture scenes, there was a sexy side to this opera too. The main romantic interest was sung with passion and precision by mezzo soprano Elvira Soukop. This barbarian girl, who should have been rejected by all, was, instead, loved and cherished by the Magistrate, which of course did not endear him to his persecutors. A busy man, the Magistrate was also prone to sleeping with the Cook, portrayed by soprano Kelly God, as well as a girl called Star, sung by soprano Marisca Mulder. Christopher Hampton's English libretto was taut, rich in lanuage and beautifully realised by Glass's musical signatures of fluent menace and occassionally searing sadness. Dream sequences between the main scenes, where the Magistrate is guided to the fact that the Barbarians pose no threat, were cleverly created by the excellent Opernchor des Theaters Erfurt. Not a happy opera, certainly not a comedy, it was powerful and assertive from start to finish. The music was classic Glass from the first staccato beat to the fast kettle drum end, delivered with passion and accuracy by the Erfurt Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Dennis Russell Davis. The direction by Guy Montavon and sets by George Typsin were stunningly evocative, with strong lighting by Thomas Hase giving atmosphere and a feeling of location. It was a long journey to Erfurt, but well worth the effort. The production will be staged in Austin, Texas and Cincinnati in the USA and Amsterdam in Europe. How long must we wait for the Barbarians to arrive in London? This is an opera I want to see again and soon.
Christopher Monk, Musical Opinion,01/11/2005
[Hampton's] words sing well, too, and Glass sets them in gently contoured vocal lines, often supported by the familiar lapping orchestral textures ... there are some striking solo lines, and there is a series of orchestral dream interludes coloured by a chorus in the pit, separating the sharply focused scenes. The result is a worthwhile piece of theatre, with cogent music and sometimes harrowing drama ... Genuinely intriguing.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,13/09/2005
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