An Opera for Wartime

Philip Glass' 'Waiting for the Barbarians' arrives when its message is urgently needed

Richard Salter in the Erfurt production of <i>Waiting for the Barbarians</i>
Richard Salter in the Erfurt production of Waiting for the Barbarians

Dark days frequently call forth mighty works of art.

Think of Picasso's Guernica, rising from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, or Arthur Miller's The Crucible, emerging from the anti-communist witch hunts following World War II – fierce and impassioned works which spoke to their time, indicting the injustice and violence taking place then.

Now we find ourselves deep in an era of terror, with our nation poised to enter the fourth year of war in a foreign land, a war in which the rights of some – in that country and this one – have been sacrificed on the altar of security, in which fear of an enemy has been used to justify repression and torture, in which those who have not supported the war have been judged as enemies of the state. It is a time of much bloodshed and cruelty and inhumanity.

Today, just as a "new way forward" in this war is being heralded by the administration, there comes to our shores a work of art that speaks to these dark days, sometimes in language that echoes what we've been told by the leaders of the current military campaign. Waiting for the Barbarians is the latest opera by Philip Glass, an adaptation of the novel by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. In it, the life of a village on the frontier of an unnamed empire is disrupted by rumors of an attack by "barbarians." When representatives of the empire descend upon the village, they accept the rumored threat at face value and employ whatever methods they deem necessary – torture and murder included – to defeat those they perceive as enemies or as allies of their enemies.

An Opera for Wartime

The opera had its world premiere in Erfurt, Germany, 15 months ago and was performed in Amsterdam in 2006, but its first performances outside Europe will be this month in Austin, when Austin Lyric Opera opens the American premiere – an extraordinary achievement for the 20-year-old regional company. Over this week and the next, we will have four opportunities to hear its timely message.

Creating It

Now, it must be noted that Waiting for the Barbarians wasn't born as a statement on the war in Iraq. Coetzee published the novel back in 1980, and Philip Glass' interest in it as a source for an opera predates not only the current Gulf war but also the Gulf War conducted by the father of our current commander-in-chief. And even though the creation of the opera finally got under way after Iraq had been invaded, that kind of political commentary wasn't necessarily foremost in the creators' minds. For librettist Christopher Hampton, the man who adapted Les Liaisons Dangereuses so successfully to the stage and screen, the main question was just how to do the job.

"It was slightly nerve-wracking to start with," he recalls. "I mean, I'd written a musical before, [Andrew Lloyd Webber's] Sunset Boulevard, and in that case, I was working with an experienced lyricist, Don Black, and the music was supplied in advance. In this instance, Philip wanted the libretto to begin with, to generate the music in his mind. I was just nervous because I'd never done it before. And I said to him, 'What advice do you have?' And he said, 'Well, don't make it too long.'"

Of course, that's not to say that the contemporary resonance of Coetzee's story didn't ring in Hampton's ears as he was adapting it. "I don't know whether Coetzee was thinking more of the situation in contemporary South Africa or maybe of the Vietnam War," he says, "but so much of it seems applicable to what we're going through at the moment. Round about the election, it was very much in one's mind, you know, the way in which phony external threats were being played up to shore up a rather shaky administration at home."

Even so, Hampton sought to balance the work's seeming timeliness with the timelessness that made the original story so compelling. "I did sharpen it up at certain moments to chime with what was happening, but I tried not to make it too obvious," says Hampton. "And in a way it's the universality of the book that makes it powerful, the fact that one recognizes the sort of political process that's going on in the background. Just because it's true not only to one specific situation but many, many situations over the centuries, I suppose. It's not too explicit, and it's not too vague. It's kind of specific in a rather interesting way, in a rather Kafka-ish way."

An Opera for Wartime

ALO Artistic Director Richard Buckley, who will conduct the American premiere, credits Hampton with bringing a lot to the table in his first libretto. "There's so much more individual character development in this piece than in a standard opera. It really is much more of a musical drama. You get much more fleshed-out portrayals of the individual characters, and I think that's largely to do with Christopher Hampton."

Getting It

If the opera's premiere in September 2005 is any indication, Hampton and Glass were wildly successful in their balancing of the allegorical and contemporary. At the end of the performance, they were accorded a standing ovation that lasted a full 15 minutes. Naturally, the production itself played a large part in the crowd's reactions. In addition to the rich characters established in Hampton's text and the tensions bound up in Glass' complex, pulsating rhythms, the production featured compelling performances by Richard Salter as the Magistrate and Eugene Perry as Colonel Joll, under the direction of Guy Montavon, and sumptuous, sometimes disturbing images by designer George Tsypin. However you measure it, Waiting for the Barbarians was a triumph.

So when you have the foreign premiere of a major new work by one of the country's musical masters (don't tell, but he turns 70 this month), the question becomes: Who gets to do the first production in his homeland? You would expect that opera companies from coast to coast would be vying for the honor, and you would be right. So how did Austin end up with the prize? It had the interest, obviously, but as in so many things, it also came down to timing. Buckley explains that it began with his and ALO's interest in work that was more cross-cultural than the traditional operatic canon.

"One of the biggest cross-cultural composers of the 20th century, I felt, was Philip, and I had known and heard that he had quite a good following here. I found out about the piece through the artistic director of Pittsburgh Opera, who's a friend. [Pittsburgh] originally was going to have the American premiere, and there was a consortium of three or four companies that were considering doing it, and I put our hat in the ring. And for a number of different reasons and different occurrences in the development of the production, as these things take three, 3 years, we were put in a situation where we could get an earlier date, and I had been in the process of trying to figure out what would be the right type of piece for us to do for our 20th anniversary. So I was able to move this up, and we had the American premiere for our 20th anniversary.

"In developing the project and finding out more of it, there seemed to be so much synergy with regard to Coetzee being a UT graduate and an illustrious alumnus and having won the Nobel prize for literature in 2003 and Philip being the iconic composer that he is."

Making It Work

An Opera for Wartime

It's one thing to say you'll do the production. It's another actually to do it. The original production in Erfurt had the benefits of a new state-of-the-art theatre, of which designer Tsypin took full advantage. For instance, he was able to move set elements in and out smoothly and effectively, utilizing a computerized rail system. Unfortunately, as Buckley points out, "no theatre in the United States has a computerized rail system, including the Metropolitan Opera." So while the Austin production follows the design of the Erfurt production, its effects are being achieved with a lot less high tech machinery and a lot more old-fashioned elbow grease. "We've tried to map out an Austin version using 12 people on the flies, and a 13th person coordinating them all," says Buckley. "So it's much more complex than anything we've ever done.

And that's just the backstage stuff. Glass' music is its own challenge. You might think it's easy to command – that same sequence of, say, four notes, repeated ad infinitum – but you'd be way off. Speaking of his lead performer, Richard Salter, Buckley says, "Richard has done a lot of contemporary European music, and he has found that although it might look or feel simple, to hear the harmonic with the melodic within the harmonic structure and also to shape the rhythmic pulse of the vocal line has been more difficult than he thought it would be."

Buckley, who has never before conducted Glass before, has taken the occasion to try and inject something new into its performance. "I'm pleased to say that I have found a more lyrical approach to Philip's music, which is then set against, you could say, the sequenced harmonic and rhythmic style of his music. What we have found is a different style of vocal lyricism that has given a whole different color to this piece. I hope Philip likes it. [Laughs] He may hate it and say, 'This is not how I hear my music.' But I have constantly said to Eugene [Perry, who has performed many of Glass' works], 'How does this feel?' And he said, 'It feels more right. You're coaching me with this piece that I've done a lot already, and yet I feel I'm getting many more colors and many more ways of approaching what was more static previously.'"

Hearing It

When all is said and done, though, the minutiae of technique and details of achieving technical effects are not what will likely linger with those who see and hear Waiting for the Barbarians. In a bare rehearsal hall, under the unforgiving glare of fluorescent lights, with all the performers in street clothes, and a rehearsal pianist in place of the orchestra, the story and its characters compel. It is one of those gripping portrayals of power wielded brutally and without conscience, of war and how easy it is to lose one's humanity in its fog.

It's only natural that we associate these ideas with the war we know, the actions that we've seen reported in headlines for the past four years, the sound bites repeated by various proponents of the war again and again (almost like one of Philip Glass' rhythmic loops); we have attained an intimacy with this war, with its words and images. But the truth is, this is an old, old story, as old as war itself. And in every war, we need to learn its cost all over again, if not through the casualties of war itself, then perhaps through works of art that show them to us. Works such as Waiting for the Barbarians.

"This is not anybody's statement of anti-Bush," asserts Buckley. "Nor was there any specific artistic vision to create that impression. Some of the issues and visuals, if you want to come at it with an interpretation, you can project anything on it. I feel though, personally, that the issues that are brought to the fore by the story are things that we as humans constantly need to revisit. For over thousands of years now, we still haven't gotten it, have we?" end story

Austin Lyric Opera will present Waiting for the Barbarians Friday, Jan. 19; Sunday, Jan. 21; Saturday, Jan. 27; and Monday, Jan. 29, at Bass Concert Hall. For more information, call 472-5992, or visit

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Philip Glass, Waiting for the Barbarians, Christopher Hampton, Austin Lyric Opera, Richard Buckley, American opera

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