The Barbarians

Leanne Minshull

MONA FOMA: Based on Constantine Cavafy's 'Waiting For the Barbarians', this new production from IHOS music theatre opera is compelling and emotionally connective.
The Barbarians
The new opera The Barbarians, produced by Hobart-based opera company IHOS and composed by its artistic director Constantine Koukias, opened last week in Hobart as part of the Festival of Music and Art (FOMA). Based on the poem Waiting for Barbarians, written by Greek Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy in 1904, the Opera is performed in Modern Greek with bilingual narration.

The poem is a reflection on a theme constant in the civilised imagination: how society defines its attitudes and culture by reference to potential threats from the “other”. Cavafy’s work portrays a tyrannical empire on the eve of destruction, with its political leaders paralysed, the ruling class affluent and ostentatious. Anticipation and commotion dominate the city. The poem is structured around a series of questions such as:

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?

To which the answer is always the same: Because the barbarians are to arrive today.

Whilst the theme is an old one, the production pushed boundaries into the future. The classical Greek device of the chorus was used but the chorus leader in a traditional mask was, unconventionally, a woman. The traditional ten-man chorus didn’t speak and instead did some untraditional activities, such as throwing glitter on the audience and donning kidney necklaces.

The set was also unconventional, and upon entering the space you felt a part of it, with the audience sitting either side of the performance space on cushions and stools. The space was darkened and the room full of smoke – this was not an opera for asthmatics! It was also one to leave the kids at home for, as it contained nudity and adult themes.

Throughout the production, stanzas of the poem were narrated in Greek and English followed by an explosion of artistic storytelling that includes singing, dancing, donkeys, fish, projections – you name it, everything got a guernsey. At times the storytelling was compelling and discernible, with obvious parallels being drawn to America and its “war on terror”. At other times, I had absolutely no idea what the performers were trying to convey.

During an interview some months ago, artistic director Koukias told the interviewer that he didn’t want to spoil it “by talking too much about the imagery. But on an emotional level, the audience can expect a very lyrical work that at times will be incredibly jarring and disturbing; sometimes it will be uplifting, and at others it be extremely harrowing."

Koukias delivered on this promise. Despite at times not knowing what was going on, my emotional connection with the performance was constant. The ability of the performers to create the atmosphere of the city square and the citizenry was outstanding as we were taken through feelings of awe, expectation, fear, avarice and opulence. The main dancer was particularly adept at taking the audience through these various stages. His portrayal of avarice was so compelling it became uncomfortable to watch.

As an opera novice, I found this performance compelling, the voices beautiful and the set stunning, and I had a constant emotional, if not an intellectual, connection, to the work.

Rating: 4 out 5 stars

MONA FOMA presents
The Barbarians
Based on a poem by Constantine Cavafy
Director: Constantine Koukias
Production Designers: Peta Heffernan & Elvio Brianese
Lighting & Special Effects: Jason James
Digital Video Production design: Carl Higgs
Sound Design: Greg Gurr

Music Director: Don Bate
Perucssion: Gary Wain, Tracey Patten
Bassoon / Contra bassoon: Simone Walters
Keyboards: Clarissa Zhang
Trumpet: Dee Boyd
Violin: Yue-Hong Cha
Drumming & Improvising: Jane Baker

Cast: Nicholas Dinopoulos, Grace Ovens, Ayrton Rose, Athanasia Houndalas, Christos Linou
Chorus: Daniel Cugliari, Callum Doyle–Scott, Oliver Gathercole, John Gunter, Tim Hurd, Jon Lenthell, Ben Peelman, Joshua Santospirito, Kyle Smith, and Zach Wells.

City Hall, Macquarie St, Hobart
January 18th–22nd 2012
More info at www.ihosopera.com

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Leanne Minshull is the Chief of Staff for Tasmania's Greens Minister for Housing and Community Development. Leanne previously worked as Director of Strategy for Australian Greens Leader, Senator Bob Brown, and has degrees in Politics and Law and a Masters of Labor Law and Relations.