Music Pulitzer Prize
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The winner in music this year is Lewis Spratlan for the concert version of act two of his opera, “Life is a Dream.” The opera is based on Pedro Calderon de la Barca 17th century play, “La Vida Es Sueño,” a masterpiece of Spanish literature. Lewis Spratlan’s music has been widely performed in the United States and around the world. A CD of his work, “Night Music,” was released in 1993. He is professor of music at Amherst College. Thank you for being with us, and congratulations.
LEWIS SPRATLAN, Pulitzer Prize, Music: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You wrote this opera a long time ago in the mid 1970′s, right? And it was only recently performed. What happened?
LEWIS SPRATLAN: Yeah, it’s a complex story. I’ll try to make it brief. In 1975, I was asked by the New Haven Opera Theater to write an opera, and it was suggested as a basis for a libretto that I have a look at “La Vida es Sueño” of Calderon. I was caught up immediately, decided that was the way to go, and got to work, and was halfway through the composition of the third act and the company folded. And there I was with an opera and nobody to put it on. And I immediately got to work together with my publisher, attempting to get it performed, but was not successful. And the piece had been sitting on the shelf for 22 years.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why do you think you weren’t successful in getting it performed?
LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, I… part of it is a sort of catch 22 situation. I was at the time in my 30′s, and I did not have any kind of track record as an opera performer. Operas are expensive to put on, as you know, and opera companies are a bit nervous about going into territory which they consider to be uncharted as far as the general public and their familiarity with the composer. I think that’s part of it. Part of it is also that it’s a difficult piece. I don’t think it’s any more difficult than many other operas, but there was a certain amount of risk involved, and there may have been factors even beyond that, that I wasn’t aware of. But those are the ones that seemed to me most important in that case.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But then there was a performance, a concert performance, of Act II, and you received the Pulitzer. Tell us a little bit about the story of the opera, because we’re going to hear some of the music, and I want you to set the scene for the piece that we’re going to listen to.
LEWIS SPRATLAN: Sure. Be glad to. Calderon’s play itself is set in Poland. And to a Spanish audience of the 1630′s, this meant a culture far from their own, but Catholic. So that there was a certain moral ground that was shared in common, and it was… the setting is also ancient. And this is something that the librettist, Jim Maraniss, and I have preserved in this version. To be concise about the story, Basilio, a king, interprets the portraits of the stars upon the birth of his son, Sagis Mundo, to indicate that the son would grow up to be a cruel and tyrannical prince. In order to spare his subjects this fate, Basilio makes the painful decision to banish Sagis Mundo to a tower in the wilderness, and gives out a story that the son in fact died at birth. As Sagis Mundo comes of age, Basilio has second thoughts. Perhaps the stars were wrong, or maybe will was stronger than fate. In any case, Basilio decides to give Sagis Mundo an opportunity to come to court and prove himself be capable of assuming the throne in a just and right way. There’s a catch, however, and the catch is that Sagis Mundo, before he is brought to court, will be drugged so that if this experiment is a failure, he can then, once again, be drugged, taken out to his tower once again, and be told that the whole thing was a dream.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me interrupt you right there, because that’s…we’re about to hear the moment when he wakes up after he’s been drugged and finds himself in this opulent palace after having been brought up in a very rude way.
LEWIS SPRATLAN: Exactly.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let’s listen to that, and then tell us more about it afterward.
LEWIS SPRATLAN: Good.
PORTION OF OPERA: Oh, heavenly God, what do I see? I – in this sumptuous palace? I – among silks and brocades? I – in the center of a circle of servants so finely liveried? I – awake from a sleep in so elegant a bed? I – in the midst of so many, eager to help me dress? This cannot be a dream. I know I am awake. Am I not Segismundo? Heavens, tell me my mistake.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about your approach to the music, about how you approached this famous play musically.
LEWIS SPRATLAN: Sure. One thing that was very important to me, Elizabeth, from the beginning, was to try to come up with musical characterizations that matched the temperaments and motivations of the characters in the piece. Segismundo, of course, is a very tormented soul, as you say. He has been raised virtually as an animal in the wilderness and knows nothing of the fineries of human society. He is in an extremely agitated state. He doesn’t know what to make of this. And his music is, as you heard just a bit of right there, is quite jagged in terms of its intervals. Its rhythms are complex and full of impetuousness. On the other hand, certain other characters have very different kinds of music. So my attempt was to have a music that provided a kind of thumbprint sound for each one of the characters. For example, two of the other characters in this piece, cousins who stand to inherit the throne if Segismundo is not successful are foppish and very flowery characters. Their music is extremely simple, tonally speaking, but overly elaborate. The fool figure in this piece has a very chipper, staccato sort of delivery, very much tied to the trumpet. His name is, in fact, Clarine, and Clarino, it is the old name for trumpet. So there’s this kind of identity. The father, Basilio, is a star gazer, a lover of order, a lover of clarity; and his music is in this almost edifice of total structures within which he moves, et cetera. Perhaps this gives you some idea about the range of different musical voices that are heard.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, and the music reflects theme, the theme of the prince’s wildness, as opposed to this very orderly father.
LEWIS SPRATLAN: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The themes seem universal. I suppose that is why “La Vida Sueño,” the Calderon play, has been so much read through the years, and the idea that maybe we all feel sometimes we’re in a dream.
LEWIS SPRATLAN: Yeah, this is one of the things that struck me so much about the play when I first read it. It has these absolutely permanent, constantly renewing themes to it: Father and son, this opposition; the dreams and reality; fate and free will; things that have been involved in our lives from then and that time and on into the future. It has this universal meaning that really is beyond culture, and certainly beyond Spanish culture — and beyond time too. It seems to me these are things that we all think about all the time. And that’s one of the things that gripped me so much about this as a subject for the opera.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Given the size of this project, to have had to sit on the shelf then to have revived it and then to be given a Pulitzer almost right away after it is performed, you must have been extremely gratified and surprised.
LEWIS SPRATLAN: I must say it has been a little bit breathtaking. I’m not quite back down to earth yet. You see, this has been a very brief period of time that you are speaking of. The piece premiered on January 28 of 2000. And the Pulitzer nominations were due by March 1. So there was a brief period there between the premier and the submission to the Pulitzer board. And then here we are – it was just last Monday that the Pulitzers were announced. It was scarcely a two-month period before my first hearing this piece, having watched it sit on the shelf for 22 years, and this glorious moment. So yes, it is. Of course, the thing that is most exciting about this is that of the chances of actually seeing it staged are greatly increased, both because of the excellence of the performance and the recording of this one act that I can represent, which is in no small part to the Pulitzer itself.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Finally very briefly, what are you working on now, Mr. Spratlan?
LEWIS SPRATLAN: I have a couple of projects in front of me. I’m writing a piece for violin and piano for a violinist by the name of Veronica Tabukavic, who has commissioned this work from me. I’ve, in fact, composed the work that you cited earlier, “Night Music,” is also written for this same violinist. That happens to be a trio for violin, percussion, and clarinet. The current piece for Veronica is for violin and piano. Then I’m also working on a piece for four flutes and my wife, Melinda Spratlan, who is a soprano. This will be premiered during the year next year. As I say, four flutes, but each of them playing various other kinds of flutes: Piccolo, and alto flute, and so on and so forth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Lewis Spratlan, thank you for being with us, and congratulations again.
LEWIS SPRATLAN: It’s a great pleasure to be here. Thank you, Elizabeth.