I suppose I should say upfront, that I may not be the best person to introduce you to the music of Philip Glass. I am in no way an expert on music of the minimalist composers. I normally would say that Philip Glass is not “really my thing”. I am however, a huge fan of the J. M. Coetzee novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, and when I found a recording of an opera based on the book I had to take a listen. A discussion of the novel can be found on my new blog, Great Books of Old Stream. As an opera, Mr. Glass has created a work with very accessible and listenable music. There is an added bonus for my ears, which is the text is sung in English, a language I actually speak! After listening to hours and hours of opera in languages I don’t understand very well, and have to follow subtitles or libretti to comprehend, an opera in English is refreshing.
Some of my favorite music composed by Philip Glass is the film music for a 1988 documentary film, The Thin Blue Line. The film is by Errol Morris about a man named Randall Adams who was convicted for a murder he did not commit. It is a powerful film, and in some ways contributed to Mr. Adams’ release from prison about a year later. I always thought the music by Glass was wonderful background music for the film. Now my composition teacher would have considered that a left-handed compliment. He would point out that music that is appropriate for the background often cannot hold enough interest to stand on its own, in fact should stay in the background and not draw attention away from the film subject. In any case, I think the soundtrack for The Thin Blue Line works brilliantly. Mr. Glass has also put his music to dramatic uses in composing a large number of operas and over a dozen other film scores.
The opera, Waiting for the Barbarians was commissioned by the Theatre Erfurt in Germany, where it was premiered in September of 2005. The Coetzee novel was made into a libretto by Christopher Hampton, and the music composed by Philip Glass. The 2008 recording that is available on Orange Mountain Music is a live performance conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. I so deeply wish that there was a video recording available, or that I could see a live production. In addition to the sung music, there is a prelude and five different “dreamscape” episodes that happen in the opera. I know that there is a great deal of wordless action happening on the stage during these dreamscapes, action that tells much of the story of the novel, but is lost in an audio recording. I am familiar enough with the novel to fill in the blanks, but if you are not familiar with the novel’s plot, sadly, the audio recording may not give the full experience.
The Synopsis from the liner notes reads like this:
“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 the 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.”
Philip Glass provides these notes to accompany the recording:
“John Coetzee, the South African writer and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature 2003, first published “Waiting for the Barbarians” 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 nonviolence.
My aim then, as it is now, was to preserve Coetzee’s cold 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.”
[I think Glass meant to say the opera Satyagraha takes place in India, but this is how the liner notes read.]
I am truly saddened that the story of the opera, and the allegory in the novel, are as current today as when they were written. I think they carry an important message, a warning that should be observed, and raise plenty of questions that should be carefully considered. I hope that the opera receives more performances and productions in other cities. For a discussion of the novel, I would humbly ask you to visit Great Books of Old Stream, a new project of mine. Most importantly, go out and read the novel itself. It is shocking how current the book is today, 36 years after it was first published.