Waiting for the Barbarians (opera)
Waiting for the Barbarians is an opera in two acts composed by Philip Glass
Philip Glass
Philip Glass is an American composer. He is considered to be one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century and is widely acknowledged as a composer who has brought art music to the public .His music is often described as minimalist, along with...

, with libretto by Christopher Hampton
Christopher Hampton
Christopher James Hampton CBE, FRSL is a British playwright, screen writer and film director. He is best known for his play based on the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses and the film version Dangerous Liaisons and also more recently for writing the nominated screenplay for the film adaptation of...

 based on the 1980 novel of the same name
Waiting for the Barbarians
Waiting for the Barbarians is a novel by the South African-born author J. M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. The novel was published in 1980. It was chosen by Penguin for its series Great Books of the 20th Century and won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and...

 by South African-born author John M. Coetzee. The opera was commissioned by the Erfurt Theater in Erfurt, Germany
Erfurt is the capital city of Thuringia and the main city nearest to the geographical centre of Germany, located 100 km SW of Leipzig, 150 km N of Nuremberg and 180 km SE of Hannover. Erfurt Airport can be reached by plane via Munich. It lies in the southern part of the Thuringian...


Performance history

Waiting for the Barbarians premiered on September 10, 2005 at Erfurt Theater, directed by Guy Montavon and conducted by Dennis Russell Davies
Dennis Russell Davies
Dennis Russell Davies is an American conductor and pianist. He studied piano and conducting at the Juilliard School where he received his doctorate...

. There was one other European performance in Amsterdam
Amsterdam is the largest city and the capital of the Netherlands. The current position of Amsterdam as capital city of the Kingdom of the Netherlands is governed by the constitution of August 24, 1815 and its successors. Amsterdam has a population of 783,364 within city limits, an urban population...

 in 2006. Its American premiere was performed on January 19, 2007 by the Austin Lyric Opera
Austin Lyric Opera
Austin Lyric Opera, founded in 1986, is an internationally known opera company based in Austin, Texas.It also operates the Armstrong Community Music School....

 in Austin, Texas
Austin, Texas
Austin is the capital city of the U.S. state of :Texas and the seat of Travis County. Located in Central Texas on the eastern edge of the American Southwest, it is the fourth-largest city in Texas and the 14th most populous city in the United States. It was the third-fastest-growing large city in...

. The opera was also performed on June 12, 2008 at the Barbican Centre
Barbican Centre
The Barbican Centre is the largest performing arts centre in Europe. Located in the City of London, England, the Centre hosts classical and contemporary music concerts, theatre performances, film screenings and art exhibitions. It also houses a library, three restaurants, and a conservatory...

 in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...



On the border of an un-named Empire, the Magistrate of a relatively peaceful and unimportant town spends the days working for the well-being of his community and the nights in the company of his lady-friends.

Abruptly, the peace of this seeming idyll is broken by the arrival of a detachment of the government's Civil Guard, headed by the cold, obsessive Colonel Joll, apparently in response to rumors that the barbarians are massing to attack the Empire. As Joll says, "We are forced to begin a short war in order to safeguard the peace."

Joll and his men set out to attack a group of the barbarians, and bring back to town a number of prisoners, whom they interrogate, torture, and, in the case of one old man, kill. The Magistrate protests, at first weakly; Joll then returns to the capital city of the Empire to report and to plan further attacks on the barbarians.

The Magistrate discovers a barbarian girl, crippled and partially blinded, begging in the town. He feels a mixture of pity and, increasingly, attraction to her, and arranges for her to stay and work in the establishment where his female friend the cook works. He spends time with the girl, questioning her about the interrogation and torture by Joll's men which has left her disabled.

Confused by his growing feelings of sexual attraction, pity, and anger, the Magistrate takes the girl on a journey through the wilderness in order to return her to her people, the Barbarians. Upon his return to the town, he finds that Joll has been spreading doubts about the Magistrate's loyalty to the Empire; the populace accuse him of being a traitor and "barbarian-lover", despite his protestations that, far from being a military threat, the barbarians are peaceful nomads who have no interest in occupying the Empire.

The Magistrate himself is now imprisoned in solitary confinement for some months and tortured. Eventually he is released; the Empire's military forces have been routed by the guerilla tactics of the barbarians, and they are being "temporarily" withdrawn to the capital of the Empire, ostensibly to wait for next year's Spring offensive.

The town's supplies have been pillaged by the troops, and the Magistrate exhorts the people to be brave and to work to survive the winter by planting root vegetables, catching and drying fish, and conserving the little food that has been left to them. He goes to visit his old friend the Cook, who rebukes him for having used the Barbarian girl and for not having been able to understand her at all. He is left alone, wondering even more about who the true barbarians are.


  • ACT I
    • Prelude
    • Scene 1: "In Fact, We Never Had a Prison"
    • Scene 2: Dreamscape No. 1
    • Scene 3: "You Sent for Me"
    • Scene 4: "You're Working Late"
    • Scene 5: "Normally Speaking, We Would Never Approve of Torture..."
    • Scene 6: "Take off Your Cap"
    • Scene 7: Dreamscape No. 2
    • Scene 8: "Do You Like Living in the Town?"
    • Scene 9: "...To Demonstrate Our Strength to the Barbarians"
    • Scene 10: "Did you have a good evening?"
    • Scene 11: Dreamscape No. 3
    • Scene 12: "What is it?"
    • Scene 13: "Can you see them?" (Trip into the Mountains)
    • Scene 14: "Who Gave You Permission to Desert Your Post?"

  • ACT II
    • Scene 1: "Here, In the Dark"
    • Scene 2: Dreamscape No. 4
    • Scene 3: "What is Going On?"
    • Prologue to Scene 4
    • Scene 4: "Perhaps You Would Be So Kind"
    • Scene 5: "Enemy, Barbarian Lover!"
    • Scene 6: "So We're Still Feeding You Well?"
    • Scene 7: Dreamscape No. 5
    • Scene 8: "Tell Me, What Has Happened"
    • Scene 9: "You Don't Have to Go"
    • Scene 10: "Our Town is Beautiful"


On June 3, 2008 a recording of Waiting for the Barbarians was released on the Orange Mountain Music label.
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