Locked away since birth, hidden from human society, ignorant of his fate: such is the story of Prince Segismundo. It is also pretty much the story of an opera about him, “Life Is a Dream.”Skip to next paragraphChad Batka for The New York Times
Lewis Spratlan’s “Life Is a Dream” is to run in Santa Fe.
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Lewis Spratlan’s “Life Is a Dream” had its premiere, in a partial performance, at Amherst College in 2000.
For 32 years “Life Is a Dream,” composed by Lewis Spratlan, did not see the lights of a stage, except for a brief foray in 2000. Mr. Spratlan, then a music professor at Amherst College, scraped up $75,000 and had the second of its three acts recorded in a performance.
It was enough to win him a Pulitzer Prize. Then, back went the opera into the vault of obscurity, a sign of how winning a music Pulitzer is no guarantee of success. (This year’s Pulitzer Prizes will be announced Monday.)
“It was awful, not hearing this piece,” Mr. Spratlan said in a recent interview in New York, wearing a blue corduroy jacket with the leather elbow pads of academe. “It’s like a woman being pregnant forever.”
During that long pregnancy, five American presidents came and went. Mr. Spratlan aged from a young composer to a retired professor. “La Bohème” was performed 395 times at the Metropolitan Opera.
But soon the wait will be over.
This summer the Santa Fe Opera will present “Life Is a Dream” in a fully staged and costumed production.
“This sounds phony, but it was worth the wait,” Mr. Spratlan, 69, said. “It’s just exactly the right place to have this piece premiered.” The opera has several extended scenes in the wilderness, which will be evoked by the natural surroundings of the Santa Fe Opera’s open-air theater. The company, he said, also has a rare commitment to new music.
“It was cruel to have to wait this long,” Mr. Spratlan said, “but if any place was going to put it on — it was just meant to be.” He is grateful for the performances, he added, but does not conceal his feelings about the state of contemporary opera and the commitment of companies to stage new works.
His disappointment falls just short of resentment. Opera producers are timid, he said. Many new operas are “sort of a little limp.”
“There has to be a vision,” he said, and then began sounding professorial. “Is it the duty of art to be pushing, or has art changed? Is that no longer the responsibility of art? My position is clear. It is the responsibility of an artist to push.”
Yet producing new operas is a risky, expensive proposition. Opera companies need to sell seats. Their donors are not the most adventurous listeners, and must be kept happy.
Mr. Spratlan concedes that not all audiences will take to “Life Is a Dream,” a rich, complex score that is often dissonant and thorny. Its style was more in vogue in the 1970s; since then much contemporary opera has been written more accessibly, i.e., tunefully.
“It’s clearly in a language that’s not particularly current these days,” Mr. Spratlan acknowledged, but added, “Opera’s got to be good drama, and I think the drama’s intact in this piece.”
Charles MacKay, the general director of the Santa Fe Opera, called Mr. Spratlan’s style exotic and pan-tonal. “The musical vocabulary seemed to fit a strange and at times humorous and haunting story,” Mr. MacKay said. But, he added, the complexity of the score and the difficult vocal lines probably turned off other producers.
The opera is based on “La Vida Es Sueño,” by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the 17th-century Spanish playwright. James Maraniss, a professor of Spanish at Amherst, wrote the libretto.
Its story follows Segismundo, a prince banished at birth by his father, Basilio, because fate decreed the son would become a cruel leader. When the son grows up, the king decides to give him a chance, and has him drugged and brought back to court. Segismundo acts violently. Basilio has him drugged again and sent away, and Segismundo is told his time at the court was all a dream. But rebels seek him out, and he returns to confront the king, who relents and puts him on the throne. The opera explores relationships between father and son, fate and free will, and dreams and reality.
It will have five performances this summer. Leonard Slatkin will conduct, and the cast features major singers: Ellie Dehn, Roger Honeywell, James Maddalena and John Cheek.
An oboist who grew up in Miami, Mr. Spratlan attended Yale and earned a master’s degree in music there. He taught for two years at Penn State and went to Amherst in 1970. He is a prolific composer, and his work is frequently performed. He began work on “Life Is a Dream” in 1975 on a commission from the New Haven Opera and finished it three years later. By then that company had folded.
“It was a double whammy,” he said. “I not only didn’t have the opera performed, but I didn’t get a dime out of it.”
Still, Mr. Spratlan said he was not worried. He figured opera company directors would recognize its worth and come knocking. “How wrong I was,” he said. If companies were interested in doing something new, they wanted the cachet of making the commission, he said. The score went back in the drawer.
In the late 1990s Mr. Spratlan played a 10-minute recorded snippet of the work for a visiting professor. “He said: ‘This is very strong stuff. How can you live without hearing it?’ ” Mr. Spratlan recounted.
The composer agreed and raised money for concert performances of the second act with orchestra, with a 2000 premiere at Amherst and another performance at Harvard.
He nominated himself for the Pulitzer Prize for music, not uncommon for composers. A reporter called to tell him he had won. “It blew me over,” he said.
Again, he circulated the work among opera companies, “this time with a Pulitzer star on it,” he said. “You’d think I’d be fighting them away with a stick. Only one company made an inquiry.” Nothing came of it.
Then, in late 2008, Mr. MacKay took over at Santa Fe. He wanted a premiere, but there was no time for a commission, so he put out feelers for pieces already written or in the works.
Of some dozen finalists “Life Is a Dream” got under his skin, Mr. MacKay said. It was small enough to be financially manageable and provided good roles for young singers. Anonymous donors — modern art lovers, Mr. MacKay said — put up much of the money.
Mr. MacKay acknowledged that the Pulitzer perked up his ears. “That was a help,” he said. So was the sorry tale of the opera’s neglect.
“The piece came with a really fascinating pedigree,” he said, “this story that’s almost kind of operatic.”
Rare commitment to new music.