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Philip Glass's Waiting for the Barbarians Gets U.S. Premiere This Weekend in Austin

By Vivien Schweitzer
19 Jan 2007

Scenes from the 2005 world premiere production of Waiting for the Barbarians in Germany.
photo by Theater Erfurt

Philip Glass will begin his 70th birthday year celebrations tonight when the Austin Lyric Opera gives the American premiere of his opera Waiting for the Barbarians.

ALO artistic director Richard Buckley conducts the production, which is directed by Guy Montavon and features Richard Salter as the Magistrate, Eugene Perry as Colonel Joll, Adriana Zabala as the Barbarian Girl, Wilbur Pauley as Officer Mandel and Georgia Pickett as the Cook. Further performances are on January 21, 27 and 29. (More information is available at www.austinlyricopera.org.)

The sets and costumes, designed by George Tsypin and Hank Irwin Kittel, respectively, are those used at the 2005 world premiere in Erfurt, Germany, which received a 15-minute standing ovation. Waiting for the Barbarians was also performed in Amsterdam in 2006.

The opera's libretto is by Christopher Hampton and is based on the novel by J. M. Coetzee, an alumnus of the University of Texas and winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize Winner for literature.

Buckley told the Austin Chronicle, "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."

The story's protagonist, the Magistrate, is a loyal civil servant who conscientiously runs the affairs of a tiny frontier garrison town in an unnamed country for years, 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 the barbarians.

The old man sympathizes with the victims and decides to take a stand. He attempts to maintain a final shred of humanity by bringing home a barbarian girl, crippled by torture and nearly blind, and subsequently returning her to her people. This dangerous, exhausting expedition brands him forever as a traitor, after which he himself becomes a victim of public humiliation and torture.

Glass told the Austin American-Statesman that his opera is "a harrowing allegory of the war between oppressors and the oppressed. My aim 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."

Pittsburgh Opera was originally scheduled to stage the American premiere; when the company pulled out, Austin Lyric was awarded the opportunity.

A prolific composer, Glass has written eight symphonies and worked on 35 film scores, including, most recently, Notes on a Scandal, which stars Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. His many operas include Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten, The Voyage and The Juniper Tree.


Scenes from the 2005 world premiere production of Waiting for the Barbarians in Germany.
photo by Theater Erfurt




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