Photo Journal: Waiting for the Barbarians, Philip Glass's Latest Opera, Gets Its U.S. Premiere in Austin

Classic Arts News   Photo Journal: Waiting for the Barbarians, Philip Glass's Latest Opera, Gets Its U.S. Premiere in Austin
Sometimes it seems like Philip Glass can (and will) churn out an opera for almost any occasion. But when Waiting for the Barbarians had its world premiere in Erfurt, Germany in September 2005, it won a 15-minute standing ovation; excited reports made it back to the U.S. saying that this was the composer's best work in years.

American audiences and critics got to find out for themselves this past weekend, as the piece received its first U.S. performances at Austin Lyric Opera. And they liked what they saw and heard: opening night reportedly ended with ten minutes of clapping, whistling and cheers.

"Some of [Glass's] most agile, vivid music," wrote Steve Smith for The New York Times, "setting scenes with a genuinely impressive emotional specificity." Mark Swed said in The Los Angeles Times that "Barbarians is a sad, shocking and painfully pensive story ... Glass's music, commercially successful, long ago lost its ability to shock. But he can still write melancholic, wistfully pensive music — and better than ever."

The hometown observer, Jeanne Claire van Ryzen, wrote in the Austin American-Statesman that "theatrically and visually, Barbarians is without a doubt the most accomplished production the Lyric Opera has ever presented." (Photos at left and at bottom.)

Waiting for the Barbarians depicts a ruthless war — trumped up, fought and eventually abandoned — by an unidentified Empire against the much less advanced "Barbarians" beyond its borders. While the source work, a 1980 novel by South African writer and Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee, was clearly a critique of his homeland's apartheid-era regime, critics and other observers noted discomfiting allusions in the opera — and particularly in Guy Montalvon's staging (imported from Erfurt), which shows prisoners hooded, beaten, forced to dress in women's underwear and to crawl on all fours — to some of the U.S. military's more controversial activities in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.

Christopher Hampton's libretto was described by Smith as "a taut, dramatic condensation of Mr. Coetzee's novel"; van Ryzin found that it "preserved all of Coetzee's sublime philosophical and moral machinations while remaining lucid and forceful."

Critics praised cast, orchestra and chorus all around. In the central role of the Magistrate, who shows some compassion for the Barbarians and suffers mightily for doing so, baritone Richard Salter "conveyed outrage and weary defiance in his riveting portrayal" (Smith), in what Swed calls "the most theatrically demanding role Glass has created." Mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala was "extraordinary" (Swed), bringing "a vivid, fearless presence" (Smith) and "an impressive clarity and emotion" (van Ryzin) to her portrayal of a wounded Barbarian Girl whom the Magistrate tries to return to her people. Baritone Eugene Perry and bass Wilbur Pauley, as leaders of the Empire's forces, won plaudits as well.

Austin Lyric Opera will present two more performances of Waiting for the Barbarians, on Saturday, January 27 and Monday, January 29 at Bass Concert Hall in the Texas capital. More information is available at

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All photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Austin Lyric Opera.

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