The Awakening

By Sarah Auerbach '96

Even a Pulitzer Prize did not bring immediate offers to stage Life is a Dream. Yet Spratlan [left, with Maraniss] never lost faith that the opera would be produced: "I thought it was my best work."

This is a story about sleeping, about dreaming, about languishing in obscurity and then rising to seize the moment. It’s a story about exile. It’s about doing something years ago and waking up to its meaning. It’s about friendships and conversations that go on and on.

Thirty-five years ago two Amherst professors collaborated on something unusual. Something beautiful. Something brilliant. 

It has taken them that long to show it to the world.

This summer the Santa Fe Opera performed the opera Life is a Dream, written in the 1970s at Amherst by composer and music professor Lewis Spratlan and librettist and Spanish professor James Maraniss. In the 35 years between its writing and its world premiere, Life is a Dream slept, waking only for moments. It waited. Spratlan and Maraniss waited.

Patiently. Faithfully.

In 1975 Herta Glaz, then director of the New Haven Opera Theater, approached Spratlan with La Vida es Sueño, a play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Would Spratlan be interested in writing an opera based on the text?

At the time Spratlan lived with his family at 23 Orchard St., a college-owned duplex also occupied by Maraniss—a Calderón scholar, though Spratlan did not yet know that—and his family. Spratlan began to read La Vida es Sueño. Its protagonist is a prince, Segismundo, who is abruptly freed from the prison where he has spent his life. Untamed, uncultured, uncivilized, he kills a servant and nearly rapes a woman. He is drugged and thrown back in prison, whereupon he awakens, unsure of whether he has experienced or dreamed the “real” world.

Already, Spratlan could hear the characters in his head—a “glowing, stentorian tenor” for Segismundo; bass for the father, Basilio, who has held him hostage; contralto for Estrella, a rival for the throne whose voice rises in hoot-like peaks; a light tenor for Clarin, the opera’s fool.

It took only a few days for Spratlan to accept the commission. During those few days, he began a conversation with Maraniss that would continue for decades. For the first three years of that conversation, Maraniss wrote an act of the opera’s libretto each summer, channeling Calderón—borrowing, as Maraniss says, Calderón’s images but not his language.

When each act was written, Spratlan took over, putting music to Maraniss’s story. The musical language of Life is a Dream, says Spratlan, is sometimes frankly tonal (existing in a hierarchical system, such as the key of C), other times, quite atonal (lacking a tonal center or key). The Santa Fe Opera’s director, Charles MacKay, calls it “exotic.”

As they wrote Life is a Dream, Spratlan and Maraniss gave each other little guidance day to day. They had already decided together what elements from Calderón’s enormous text they could keep and what they must jettison. They removed a subplot involving Segismundo’s true love, Rosaura. They also changed the ending—not what happens, but, as Spratlan says, “the slant of light it’s seen in.” At the end of both the opera and the play, Segismundo folds under his doubts about what is real, becoming an obedient prince. Calderón saw this transformation as positive, as society’s taming of a wild element. Spratlan and Maraniss believe, by contrast, that Segismundo has been broken, his romantic feeling extinguished. So they made Segismundo’s final turn tragic.

They finished the opera in 1979, just in time for the New Haven Opera Theater to go under. Frustrated, but convinced the opera was great, they shopped it out to other companies, hoping someone would bite.

No such luck. Life is a Dream is difficult to perform, with its soaring, leaping vocal lines. When companies take on new operas, they want operas they’ve commissioned, not ones orphaned by other companies.

In the late 1990s, Spratlan played a 10-minute recording from the end of Act II for a visiting professor, composer Roger Reynolds. Reynolds asked Spratlan, “How can you let this sit on the shelf?”

Spratlan made up his mind to perform one act. In 2000 he and his supporters staged Act II both in Amherst’s Buckley Recital Hall and at Harvard University, after only a week of rehearsals. That year Spratlan won a Pulitzer Prize for the composition. A full performance now seemed inevitable.

Although the Pulitzer radically changed Spratlan’s life as a composer—he is now so busy with commissions that he writes almost nothing else—it did not immediately bring offers to stage Life is a Dream. Yet he never lost faith that the opera would be produced: “I thought it was my best work.”

Nearly 10 more years passed. Charles MacKay took over as director of the Santa Fe Opera. MacKay had no time to commission a new opera for the 2010 season, so he set out to choose among those already composed. He was intrigued by Life is a Dream’s history and snared by its beauty. He liked that the material tied into Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary celebration. The city was founded in 1610; Calderón wrote La Vida es Sueño in 1635. “The story is almost as old as Santa Fe,” says MacKay. “Everything fell into alignment.”

That includes the physical characteristics of the theater. The Santa Fe theater is roofed but has no sides. The back end of the stage opens to the wilderness. Life is a Dream begins with Segismundo in his wilderness tower, and practically all of Act III takes place in the wilderness, so “the setting itself seemed to be ordained,” says Spratlan.

The Santa Fe awakening of Life is a Dream created another alignment: it gave Spratlan and Maraniss’s former students a chance to reconnect with friends and with their professors. “It’s hard to explain how important Jim was for me at Amherst,” said Estelle Tarica ’90, who flew to Santa Fe from Berkeley, Calif., to attend a July 28 performance and an Alumni and Parent Programs reception and conversation with the two professors.

“Lew was a wonderful conductor and wonderful coach,” said Rob Yamins ’72, who flew to Santa Fe to catch the Aug. 4 performance with four classmates. “Especially as you get older, you remember things like that more and more. You realize how much it meant to you and how much a part of your development these things were.”

He could be describing my experience. When I listened to Santa Fe’s workshopped recording of Life is a Dream, I was immobilized, blown back in my seat by the expressive force of what I was hearing. At times my mouth hung open.

I suddenly realized I’d had a similar experience once before. In 1993, as a member of the Amherst College Choral Society, I’d sung in the world premiere of Lewis Spratlan’s In Memoriam. I had forgotten all about it until Life is a Dream woke me up.

Sarah Auerbach, a freelance journalist based near Boston, is a frequent contributor to Amherst magazine. 

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04