Saturday, February 03, 2007

This Just In: Waiting for the Barbarians in Austin

Friend of many years and Austin correspondent Lucas Rhon brings you this account of an operatic premiere:

Maury, I saw Philip Glass' newest opera, Waiting for the Barbarians on Saturday night. It had a very good crowd, not sold out, but quite substantial. This work should be required presentation at all of the opera companies is the USA. Its message is so pertinent to the situation the USA now finds itself as a result of Bush's Middle East policies. The book was written in 1980 and the idea and composition of the opera were all pre 9/11; while it was not conceived an an anti-Bush work, it certainly can fit like a glove today.

There has been all sorts of reaction to the work. A friend that works at ALO told me one woman called and said she was returning her tickets because the opera was anti-Bush. The caller was told that the work predates the Middle East situation and was finished before the invasion; the woman would still not come to see it. But last night the upper balcony where I sit was full; the company is selling rush tickets to UT students beginning about two hours before the performance and the students certainly took advantage of them last night, and they did not leave at the intermission. The story is so compelling and with the clear diction of the singers plus the titles it was an engrossing work and evening.

The work was first presented in Erfurt, Germany, in September, 2005. The production designed by George Tsypin and the stage director, Guy Montavon, were imported from Germany for this USA premiere. It is a stunning work. Glass' signature underpinnings have developed from his earlier compositions and in this work they are a perfect accompaniment to the text by Christopher Hampton; the vocal line is of the 'sung speech' nature: not a high C to worry about. To sum it all up: it ain't Puccini, but first class Glass! Sorry you could not be present.

Two of the original creators, Richard Salter, the Magistrate, and Eugene Perry, Colonel Joll, recreated their roles. The important part of the Barbarian woman was sung by Adriana Zabala and Wilbur Pauley was Joll's officer who does the dirty work! Richard Buckley conducted magnificently. The work is really stunning and the audience gave it very prolonged standing appreciation at the end. To see what the Barbarians went through with imprisonment and torture was horrifying enough but then there are the contemporary parallels which cannot be put out of the mind. The work is about 2 and a half hours in length. The first act is about 75 minutes and the last about 60. Time just flew by. I saw two performances and had to miss the dress rehearsal because of the icy weather situation we had on that night.

There was a symposium on the opera two weeks ago; Glass was present. He is very articulate and could be very amusing too. I had seen him eating at a restaurant, Kiev, 8th and 2nd Avenue, in NYC on several occasions in the past. On my last visit, the restaurant had been redecorated, the prices raised, and the food quality not nearly as good. At the reception after the symposium, I told him this little story and he immediately said the Kiev was now closed and the place to go now was two blocks up the street at 10th and 2nd Avenue; I will check it out on my next trip. I cannot recall the name of the approved eating place but it does have a Slavic name.


Thanks, L.R., and keep us posted. ALO really matured from a regional-feeling house to something more during my seven years in Austin. Late in my years there, they presented a memorable, very well-staged Chenier, and these days they get some distinctly non-regional singers. p.s. we suspect Mr. Glass' culinary haunt is Veselka, home of many happy fried potato products.


Tristan said...

I was one of those UT students that bought a rush ticket, and I agree with many of the obervations made:

The performances were all quite good - especially those of Richard Salter as the Magistrate and Adriana Zabala as the Barbarian Woman. The diction was incredible - I understood every word clearly without looking at the titles.

The story also had some really nice parallels to the Iraq war - although Coetzee wrote the book about apartheid in South Africa, there are definitely strong ties the current war.

However - the opera itself just wasn't that good. Now don't go accusing me of hating Phillip Glass - I really actually like a lot of his music. The overture was great, but the rest of the show just sort of fell flat. The first act seemed interminable - long orchestral interludes in between short scenes where nothing happened. It seemed thrown together haphazardly. I really like Glass' earlier operas - especially Einstein on the Beach and Akhnaten. Most of my colleagues that saw the opera agreed with me - we were actually pretty surprised by all the positive reviews. I really think people are seeing this as better than it is because it seems to make a statement about the Iraq war.

Chalkenteros said...

I hope it travels north to NYC sometime soon.

I will definitely check out Veselka.

Chalkenteros said...

Confirmed: pierogis at Veselka are worth the cab/subway fare. Just be prepared to wait for a table, esp. if you go on Sunday afternoon.

Maury D'annato said...

Oh did you like it? Funny thing is, you can get food like that for half as much all over Chicago. Maybe Green Point, too. (It's that whole phenomenon like in the Friends episode where Ross goes to China and someone or other says "have some good Chinese food while you're there. Except there, they just call it 'food.'" If there are lots of actual Polish around, they're not going to shell out $14.99 for the homeland equivalent of, er, french fries or something.) But seriously we'd go to these big buffets in Chicago, death by pirog. I mean, technically one's Ukrainian and the other's Polish say potato, I say deep fried potato. Anyway glad you liked it.

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