‘Life Is a Dream’ remained a dream for three decades
In 1978, Lewis Spratlan wrote an opera but couldn’t get it staged. In 2000, he won the Pulitzer Prize for the second act of that opera in concert version but still couldn’t get it staged. This summer, “Life Is a Dream” finally will get its world premiere at Santa Fe Opera. Spratlan tells of a work that waited three decades to come to life.
In the spring of 1975, I was invited by Herta Glaz Redlich, director of the New Haven Opera Theater in Connecticut, to compose a new work for the company. At our first meeting she suggested as a basis for a libretto the great Spanish Golden Age drama “La vida es sueño” by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, dating from 1635. I had been aware of this rich period in Spanish literature but did not know the play. Herta lent me a copy in English translation that I read cover to cover with mounting enthusiasm that evening.
As I made my way through the play it began to transform itself into an opera through a seemingly automatic process. Compelling and timeless human themes — fate and freewill, father and son, dreams and reality — presented in stark but vivid scenes generated musical images that burgeoned as I read on. Perhaps most gripping were Calderón’s magnificent Baroque set pieces, great symmetrical effusions that formed the pillars of the work, and that seemed to me arias aching to be composed. I made the decision that night.
The next morning I hurried to the adjoining apartment of my friend and colleague at Amherst College, James Maraniss, to exclaim about this discovery. Jim is a Spanish scholar, and I felt sure he’d have much to say about it. What I didn’t realize at the time was that his specialty was Calderón and that he knew the work intimately. In a matter of days it became clear that he was to be my librettist, bringing to the project, beyond his intimacy with Calderón, a deeply musical sensibility, a gift for poetic English and a knack for the requirements of a libretto.
We set to work, Jim producing an act at a time, which I would then begin setting to music. We had lengthy discussions in advance about the principles of compression we’d have to employ and a troubled series of chats about the ending, which seemed to both of us unsuitable for a 20th century audience. In the end, we stuck with the actual events of Calderón’s close but converted these into tragedy rather than triumph. We proceeded at the rate of an act per year or so.
My musical language at the time is probably best described as “pan-tonal,” that is, mostly centered in certain keys or modes but fluid in moving among them. An exception here is the music of Basilio, the star-gazing king who is trapped by his astrological prophesies. His music employs the 12-tone technique, a quasi-mathematical approach that employs all 12 of the available pitches in ordered succession: a kind of systematic analog of Basilio’s rigidity.
The vocal style I think of as heightened speech, following closely the rhythms and contours of the text. Each character has a vocal “thumbprint.” For some examples, the hero’s music soars upward, only to fall a bit and resume its climb — Sisyphus pushing the bolder uphill. The king’s music is marked by wide leaps, conveying pomposity and exaggeration. The music of Clarín, the jester, is staccato and very narrow in range; he is always announced and accompanied by the piccolo trumpet, a descendant of the namesake Baroque-era clarino. The opera’s orchestration is many-hued and actively conveys the psychological environment at hand.
In the spring of 1978 I received the horrible news that the New Haven Opera Theater would cease operations immediately. I was then two-thirds of the way through the third and final act. Bouncing back from disappointment, I determined that I would complete the opera and begin marketing it to other companies. My publisher at the time, Margun Music, took on the work enthusiastically and we circulated it to every notable opera company in the U.S. and several in Europe as well.
Then began the wait. There were a few cursory nibbles but not a single substantial response. I was increasingly despondent at the thought of this product of three years’ hard work languishing on the shelf. It was too demanding to put on with local forces. Strong singers and an expert orchestra were needed. We did put on a 10-minute segment of Act 2 at Amherst College in a concert version as a kind of sampler, but eventually other projects took my attention and “Life Is a Dream” went dormant.
In the late 1990s the San Diego-based composer Roger Reynolds was in residence for a semester at Amherst. Almost casually, I pulled out that 10-minute snippet we’d recorded and played it for Roger. He lit up with enthusiasm and almost scolded me for not pursuing a production of the opera. He asked how I could bear not hearing it, and at that critical moment I knew he was right — I had been in a kind of sublimated depression about the whole turn of events.
On the rebound I decided to make another big push. I managed to raise enough money to mount a concert performance of Act 2 — the dramatic meat of the matter — at Amherst and at Harvard’s Paine Hall, through the auspices of Boston’s Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble. We assembled a superb cast, including Alan Glassman, John Cheek and Christina Bouras, and the wonderful young conductor James David Jackson, and put on two fine concerts in January 2000. To my amazement, this single act won the Pulitzer Prize in music that year.
Now, I thought, I would have to fight through a wave of offers from opera companies here and abroad. In fact, I received one pale and uneventful inquiry from a prestigious American company. That was it. “Life Is a Dream,” now with a Pulitzer star attached, went back on the shelf for another 10 years.
In February of 2009, I got word from G. Schirmer, the music publisher that had bought out Margun Music, that the Santa Fe Opera was showing substantial interest in the work and for the first time I began to believe that a production might actually happen. Santa Fe had long been central in my hopes — its wilderness setting, so right for the Calderón, and unrivaled commitment to mounting new works had always made it seem the ideal venue. Soon things fell into place, and this brilliant production was launched.
Our tale of a prince exiled at birth to the wilderness by his frightened and pedantic father following dire forecasts from the stars, now given a chance to show that will can overcome fate by being brought to court, failing miserably at his trial, returning to exile and at last prevailing despite being repeatedly told that his court memories were only dreams, is gripping theater, the more so in this incomparably imaginative and bold Santa Fe production.
That these performances coincide with the 400th anniversary of Santa Fe, a city founded by Spaniards during Calderón’s youth, closes what seems to be a foreordained circle.
In addition to composing operas, orchestral, and chamber music, Lewis Spratlan is a retired member of the music faculty of Amherst College, and has also taught and conducted at Penn State University, Tanglewood and the Yale Summer School of Music. He lives with his wife, Melinda, in Amherst, Mass.
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