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Opera: 'Life Is a Dream' -- except when it's not

July 24, 2010 | 10:00 am


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 free will, 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 closing but converted these into tragedy rather than triumph. We proceeded at the rate of an act per year or so ...

-- Lewis Spratlan

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 the Santa Fe Opera. For Spratlan's full story on how the opera finally came to be, click here. 

Photo: Roger Honeywell (Segismundo), left, and John Cheek (Basilio) in the Santa Fe Opera's world premiere production of "Life is a Dream." Credit: Santa Fe Opera