Lewis Spratlan: Beyond the Pulitzer Prize

Winning the Pulitzer



Lewis Spratlan
Interview Excerpt #1


FRANK J. OTERI: Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer Prize!

LEWIS SPRATLAN: It’s a great thrill. I’m still coming down to earth from it.

FRANK J. OTERI: What have been some of the reactions that you’ve been getting so far?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, an enormous variety of people, as you can imagine, from old, old students that I had totally lost track of through, you know, and colleagues have been calling me. Roger Reynolds, Yehudi Wyner, people who are roughly from my generation, and lots of people that I don’t know, too. A full gamut. Old professors from when I was in graduate school, and a former sweetheart of mine from high school, [laughs], who is now an artist in Washington DC… I had totally lost track of her. It’s been on the Jim Lehrer Newshour and stuff like that, generated, there’s been a New Yorker piece… Each time one of these comes out, there’s a little wave of e-mails that comes in. Hundreds of people have been in touch. It’s been wonderful to reconnect with people that way, too, as you can imagine.

FRANK J. OTERI: So what do you feel the prize means?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, the number one thing that it means for me right now is that the chances of getting this opera staged are suddenly boosted by an enormous factor. That’s by far the most valuable thing about it to me, and I’m doing everything I possibly can to capitalize on that. This piece, as you know, has been sitting on the shelf for 22 years. First there was the opportunity to actually hear it, and it was this fabulous performance, an absolutely, world-class performance I think. Gunther Schuller, in the New Yorker comments that he made, described it as an “impeccable performance,” and he also said that it was a word he’s used about four times in his life, and it was truly that, it was a magnificent performance…

FRANK J. OTERI: It really comes across on the recording I heard.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: We had world-class singers involved, John Cheek and Allan Glassman from the Met, Christina Bouras, who’s doing a Juliet in New York City next year. Very, very fine singers from Boston, too, William Hite and David Ripley, and beyond that, probably the most committed performance from a conductor that I’ve ever had. He was another student of mine, J. David Jackson, who graduated from Amherst in about 1980 or so. He’s been in Europe for about 15 years doing the usual apprenticeship route: five years in Germany, five years in Spain, five years in Brussels, and he’s an absolute miracle worker with singers, and he has just the perfect touch with singers, and had absolutely internalized the score. He had learned the score more thoroughly than I’ve ever had any performer learn a score on a piece of mine. It was just in the palm of his hands, tremendous work from him. So all of that led to the performance. I’m saying the experience of this opera came in waves. First, this wonderful performance, and then some very nice recognition of the performance… It got a terrific review from Richard Dyer in the Globe, which in itself was of interest, because I think it drew a lot of attention to that moment, and with no great optimism, I submitted it to the Pulitzer Board. I mean, composers, as you know, just send anything that feels like it might be sort of big enough to be considered. I sent it along, but… And I had honestly no particular reason to think that it would fare any better than other pieces that I’ve submitted to the Pulitzer Board before. But, in fact, it seems, again, from Schuller’s remarks, it seems to have caused quite a bit of interest on the Pulitzer Board. I hadn’t even particularly paid attention to when the awards were coming out. I knew they were in the spring sometime. I didn’t know just when. So I was pretty knocked out when the call came.

FRANK J. OTERI: So the call came on a Monday…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: But not from the Pulitzer Board. It was three days before I heard from the Pulitzers. I got a little telegram, “You have won the Pulitzer Prize.” Ellen, our concert manager, got the call. The prize was announced at 3 o’clock. At ten minutes after 3, NPR called Ellen, wanting materials to put on the radio. And then she called me and said, “That’s fabulous. Congratulations!” And I said, “Congratulations for what?” And then she told me and I went straight through the ceiling at that point. But it was from Ellen that I first heard it. It started sort of pouring in after that, the phone was just ringing away, but nothing official still for a while.

FRANK J. OTERI: This is work that’s 22 years old. And it’s unusual – certainly there’s a precedent for it: the Ives Third Symphony won in the ’40’s, and it was written 30 years earlier. But it’s sort of odd, in a way, to have the Prize for the year 2000 go to a piece that was written in 1978. But it’s also odd that you submitted an older piece this year, and it’s obviously something, even though it’s from 22 years ago, that’s still very near and dear to your heart.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: To be sure. I consider this my magnum opus. I think it’s the most significant piece I’ve written. And, by far, the biggest, and the only opera… I have an enormous identity with the hero in this piece, who is an exile. Although I do all sorts of public things, there’s a certain sort of sense of psychological exile that I feel. So I have a visceral attachment to the piece. And I like it a lot, and I think it’s awfully good, and to have this performance sitting there became a perfect opportunity for me to submit it to the Pulitzer Board. And there was no way I wasn’t going to, I mean, I had been intending all along, assuming it was a decent performance, to submit it. I was aware myself of the fact that it was an old piece and I didn’t know whether that was going to be a kind of hitch in things, you know, whether they just sort of had a policy against giving the award to older pieces. I can imagine, I mean, it’s kind of conceivable that on balance, that is the view that they would take. If they had a sort of older piece that was right up there, but a newer one that was just as good, I can imagine they might be inclined to give it to the newer one, but I like to imagine that the excellence of the piece is what won it the award, and that that was able to overcome whatever sense they might have that wouldn’t be normal to give it to an older piece that way.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, the other thing that’s so unusual about the work winning is, of course, only the second act won, because only the second act was performed this past year. We are fortunate to have with us as part of the discussion this afternoon, the librettist of the opera. I’d like to talk to you a little bit about this. This is something you also did 22 years ago, and now, all of a sudden, here it is. There’s a performance that happens in January, and, it not only finally gets performed, it wins the Pulitzer Prize in Music. What is your feeling of the work now? Have you forgotten about this piece? How important is it in your life?

JAMES MARANISS: Well, I was aware of this year of Calderón. This year is the 400th anniversary of Calderón’s birth, and so there are Calderón symposia and celebrations all over the world. And the performance of this opera, to my mind, is the most significant event marking Calderón’s anniversary and presenting Calderón to the new millennium. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard in the ’60’s, I first became acquainted with this play and it had an effect upon me like that of Lew’s: I identified completely with the predicament that the hero was in, and I liked the language a lot. It was merely fortuitous that I would then become the neighbor of this person, who had, not only had this psychic affinity with me and with Calderón, but also had this prodigious gift as a composer and a musician. And my attitude then was that whatever I can do to put this into some kind of poetic English, and doing that over the course of 3 years, I didn’t really have the feeling that I was doing it alone. I had the feeling that I was the instrument of something, call it Calderón, that was bigger than me. And it was an archetype, really, of this idea, of “Life is a Dream,” and the predicament that this character, that I was doing this, and that I had the gift of having this friend who was a neighbor, who was a musician, and who could actually realize the archetype for the future, for the coming of the developing of western civilization in which this play was an important thing, in which his idea was an important thing. And so I never really thought that the play, the opera, wouldn’t be done. It was out of mind because it wasn’t being done, but I knew then, 22 years ago, and I’ve always known in the interim, that if there was any really good thing that I had done, (…and Lewis has done significant and wonderful things since but I thought also that this was his best work…), somehow or other it didn’t surprise me that this would be produced and that people would like it, because I always knew it was good.

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