Lewis Spratlan: Beyond the Pulitzer Prize

Operatic Collaboration



Lewis Spratlan
Interview Excerpt #2


FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting that the two of you were neighbors, but basically you worked on the opera totally apart from each other. It’s as though you lived in other countries, even if you were on the same wavelength.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, we saw each other all the time and we have an understanding, I think. Besides, it was just so good. I mean, if there had been problems with the libretto, I think that we would have had to work together a lot more. But Jim’s a great musician, he’s not a practicing musician, but he knows what a libretto has to be. The libretto has this magnificent quality of distillation about it, I mean, it just takes this Baroque edifice and boils it down to just the most meaningful parts. And the English is very beautiful, and extremely settable. He was so aware of those values, as to what sung English would have to be. Hands off was better, as far as I was concerned, and I can’t remember, did I actually play you bits of it? Every now and then…

JAMES MARANISS: Yeah, you would play me bits of it on the piano, sing all the parts, and you were always on key, your voice quality, you know, couldn’t really hit all the notes, but you were in key. My feeling then was, and it still it, now, that as far as I can imagine, the real rich wholeness of Calderón‘s poetry gets realized by being sung in the music, and that Calderón’s play in Spanish, or in English, or in any language, merely language, is partly realized, but that the real realization, in that it’s better as an opera than it is as a play, the real realization is when it’s sung.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: So this wasn’t through any sense of avoidance – avoiding one another or avoidance of the chore of sitting down and working together. It was just that it was taking care of itself.

FRANK J. OTERI: What I find so interesting about it, though, as a listener, hearing it, you know, 22 years later, in this performance from 22 years later, is it sounds like you were working together the whole time. The prosody is so perfect, it sounds like the words and music happened simultaneously. They marry each other.

JAMES MARANISS: Yeah, well, thank you very much.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: That is the highest compliment, by the way. I’m thrilled to hear you say that.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oscar Hammerstein II often said that great songwriting collaborations are about the words and music marrying each other. And they do.

JAMES MARANISS: That’s all his doing because I didn’t have anything to do with the music.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Except that it was musically conceived by you on whatever level, conscious or subconscious. But… Very well, I mean, it could be that it sounds as if we had been working side by side. In a certain sense we were, but just not actually. It was through a common understanding of the values of Calderón, I think, that led to this, but, you know, you’re mentioning the prosody. I’m very pleased to hear that, because the piece absolutely hangs on the language, it is in as many dimensions as you can imagine there, first of all, of course, just the semantic suggestiveness of it, but very much the rhythm of the language, very much the contour of the language. There are just pages and pages of the opera where you could go through and speak the words and you would find that the melody has just exactly that – heightened, heightened, of course, but it honors the language very much, and when it works against the language, it’s for some very, very particular dramatic reason. For example, in the music of the cousins, I think, does tend to, you haven’t heard it, but in the first act, Estrella and Astolfo were the pretenders to the throne, and in the first act, he’s trying to flatter his cousin and win her in cahoots so they can proceed together to take over the throne, and there, it’s this tremendously arched language. Like some blazing comment, just loaded with the most forced imagery. And the music is ludicrous there, as the character is ludicrous, and one of the ways that the music is ludicrous is that it fights the language of the words so much. So that’s what I meant in saying that when it doesn’t follow the norm of the language it’s for some dramatic reason.

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