Waiting for the Barbarians

An opera in two acts from the novel of J.M. Coetzee



Music by Philip Glass
Libretto by Christopher Hampton based on the novel by John M. Coetzee

Principal Soloists: 2 soprano, 2 baritone, 2 bass; Secondary: 4 tenor, 2 baritone, 1 child; Orchestration: 2+pic.2.2(Clarinet in A)+cbcl(bcl).2/4.3.2+btbn.1/5perc/

Commissioned by the Erfurt Theater, Erfurt (Germany)

September 10, 2005 at Erfurt Theater in Erfurt (Germany) directed by Guy Montavon and music conducted by Dennis Russell Davies

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.

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

Dunvagen Music Publishers

Waiting for the Barbarians at Wise Music Classical

Waiting for the Barbarians