At Philip Glass' Festival, 'In The Penal Colony' Opera Contemplates Justice

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Bass-baritone Robert Orth as The Officer and tenor Javier Abreu as The Visitor in the premiere Opera Parallèle’s new production Philip Glass’ “In the Penal Colony” at the Days and Nights Festival, October 5 and 7, 2018 at The Golden Bough Playhouse in Carmel.  (Courtesy Opera Parallèle)

In the Penal Colony, Franz Kafka’s 1919 short story about a torture machine in a prison camp that goes haywire, is the stuff of nightmares. 

The plot centers on a camp official obsessed with a vicious contraption he's invented. It executes prisoners by slowly carving the alleged crime they've committed into their flesh. The torture ends when the machine kills them. When a visitor invited to witness the execution of an inmate using the machine refuses to see its merits, the official turns the device on himself. But the crazed torturer doesn't ultimately get the justice he's seeking. 

Grim, eh?

And, come to think of it, so very, very timely.

"Kafka’s prescient story foreshadows much of what we are feeling today as our democracy faces so many challenges and seems at risk," says Brian Staufenbiel, the director of a new production of a chamber opera adapted from the Kafka story that plays Oct. 5 and 7 at Philip Glass' annual Days and Nights Festival in Carmel. 


Glass, together with librettist Rudolph Wurlitzer—a descendant of the founder of the jukebox company of the same name—composed the opera in 2000.

Staufenbiel adds: "As we are facing so many challenges to our democracy, this prescient opera by Glass and Wurlitzer modernizes Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, asserting the question of 'what is justice?'"

The festival is mounting the production alongside the San Francisco contemporary opera company Opera Parallèle. Staufenbiel heads up the company, together with conductor Nicole Paiement.

The small, talented cast includes bass-baritone Robert Orth as The Officer, tenor Javier Abreu as The Visitor, and actor Michael Mohammed as The Prisoner.

Definitely worth the cheery ride down the California Coast, though the subject matter may be sobering.

'In the Penal Colony' plays Friday Oct. 5 and Sunday Oct. 7 at The Golden Bough Theatre in Carmel. Details here.