Lewis Spratlan: Beyond the Pulitzer Prize

Getting an Opera Performed



Lewis Spratlan
Interview Excerpt #3


FRANK J. OTERI: Other articles have talked a little bit about what the history of this piece was, and people who are reading this might know something of the history, but I think it might be worthwhile, and certainly it is constructive for anybody who wants to write an opera, the process that set the creation of this piece in motion and then what wound up happening.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Sure. In 1975, Herta Glaz who was the founder and director of the New Haven Opera Theater, approached me about doing a piece for them. This was actually on the recommendation of Yehudi Wyner, who was a teacher of mine there in New Haven. I never studied composition with him but I’d done a number of other courses with him. He had said very early on in our acquaintance that he felt I had a dramatic gift, and he was rather emphatic about it. And I sort of pooh poohed it, because I’ve never considered myself an opera buff particularly. I really am not a big follower of opera.

FRANK J. OTERI: Had you written vocal music?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: I had written lots and lots of vocal music, and have continued to since. There’s a great deal of vocal music and choral music in my output but not opera. In any case, she reached me and it was partly on the prodding of Yehudi’s that I said, oh, okay, you know, I’ll go talk to her about it. (Jim wasn’t on board on this yet, it was actually just a couple of days before we got in touch.) At our very first meeting she sort of laid out the land of what the New Haven Opera was all about. It was a small modest company, and one of the reasons that it’s written for relatively small orchestra, just single woodwinds, 2 horns, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone, 2 percussion, harp, piano and strings, was because it is a fairly small company, I wanted to honor that. And it is a relatively small cast, too: 8 named characters and a chorus. So she laid out the scope of the company, and in practically the same breath, presented to me a copy of La Vida Es Suena of Calderón, saying this is a work that I would like you to think about as a possibility. That was not the commission as such, but I had told her I guess on the phone before we met, that I didn’t particularly have any story in mind. And so she came prepared, a little bit.

JAMES MARANISS:Do you know what motivated her?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: As to wanting to see this set? Well, I think she saw something in that play. It’s an opera sitting and ready to be written. If you ever read it, you can see what I mean by that. Just the way it’s structured, it’s immensely operatic in concept, I think. And I think she must have realized this. I’m going to have Jim butt in here for a second, because Herta is Viennese, and just, say a word about the kind of status that this play has in German-speaking countries…

JAMES MARANISS:Well, this play is well known in German culture. It was translated in the early 19th century by Schlegel.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Das Leben ist ein Traum.

JAMES MARANISS:And Hoffmansthal, the librettist for Richard Strauss, did some versions of Calderón. He did a version of The Great Theater of the World. And Hoffmansthal and Grillparzer and other German dramatists, you could call continuers of Calderón. Calderón has always had a position in German literature, equivalent to what he’s had in Spanish literature, which you wouldn’t say of other languages. So probably Herta Glaz, as a young girl, in the Gymnasium or wherever she was in Vienna, was given this play in the Schlegel translation, and read it, and thought it was great. That would be my surmise.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: There was an investiture there on her part, I think, and she realized that it could turn into something. Beyond that I can’t say. I never actually queried her about what her motivations might have been.

HAROLD MELTZER: Did the play grab you at first reading?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Yeah. Bingo. I mean, page 3, almost. I don’t know what to say about that. It was just… well, page 10. But right away, and I had barely put it down before I had banged on Jim’s door and said, “Look what I found,” and then discovered that Calderón was his field, which I didn’t know yet. So that’s how it got launched, and off we went. We started to work on it right away. I can’t remember what time of year it was. You remember writing mainly in summer, so I would assume that it was sometime in the spring that I had seen Herta. And we just worked straight through on it. And then the crisis came, which was in the third year of our work on this, the company disbanded. Because Herta moved with her husband to California, and the company was just simply not well-enough funded to manage without her. She’s a dynamo, and she did all the fundraising, and she was the director of this company in a way far beyond what that term would seem to imply.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now in California did she work in opera?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: I don’t know. I’ve got to contact her. She’s now back in New Haven. She was married to the head of the psychiatry school at Yale and he got hired away to a position in southern California, either USC or UCLA, I don’t recall exactly. And they were out there for, well, 20, 21 years, and I discovered just the other day that she has moved back to New Haven. I haven’t been in touch with her yet. I’m very eager…

FRANK J. OTERI: She must have heard about the Pulitzer and she hasn’t been in touch with you yet?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, she’s very old. She’s got to be in her 90′s now. She must be. But I’m very remiss in not having been in touch with her. I must do that right away. But I can’t answer your question. I don’t know if she was still doing operatic things out there. I’d be surprised if she weren’t. I mean, she was just so energetic that way.

FRANK J. OTERI: So the opera company and the planned performance of your opera fell apart before you were finished with it?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Yeah, I was almost finished. I was halfway through the third act.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you kept going.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: If you’ve got two and a half out of… yeah, I kept going.

FRANK J. OTERI: And then what happened?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, I started shopping it around. It was picked up almost immediately by Margun Music, my publisher. As a matter of fact, I think they were aware of the work even before it was done, and it was published at once, so they got to workshopping it around, and I did some of the same myself. And there were two encouraging responses, one from the Houston Grand Opera, the other from the Chicago Lyric. Both came to nothing. And then there were many other submissions to other opera companies, none of which materialized at all. I actually had voice contact with people from Houston and Chicago.

FRANK J. OTERI: Houston just did the new Carlisle Floyd opera. It’s the 25th American opera that they’ve premiered, so they have a real track record for doing new American opera.

HAROLD MELTZER: They’re also just did Mark Adamo‘s Little Women

FRANK J. OTERI: Since winning the Prize, have new offers emerged?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: There have been inquiries and I know particularly about one, but I’m afraid I can’t give any details about it just yet… If it actually comes into fruition and everybody involved signs off on it then I think that it would be fine to say something about it.

FRANK J. OTERI: By June 1?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Fat chance.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you never know, the power of the Web…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Yeah, sure.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s been a real flourish of activity in opera with American composers. There was a period when people weren’t writing operas. In the car ride coming up, we were talking about Pulitzer Prize-winning operas, and once upon a time Menotti won 2 Pulitzers, and Barber won a Pulitzer for Vanessa. The last time there was a Pulitzer Prize given for an opera was in the 60′s with Robert Ward‘s The Crucible. So, it’s almost 40 years since a Pulitzer Prize went to an opera. But in the past decade, there’s been all this activity, with Glass and Adams, and then everybody else jumped in on the bandwagon. It seems that everybody’s writing operas. But they are such large-scale works; the forces are so large. For most American composers, getting a large orchestra piece done is very difficult. Getting an opera done is really difficult, and getting a repeat performance of the opera once it’s done, yikes… And as you’ve seen from your own experience, writing the work that you consider the work of your career, nothing happened.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Sickening, isn’t it?

FRANK J. OTERI: What does it mean? I mean, what do you do? I mean, I’m working on an opera…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, you know what it means! You’re working on an opera now?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: On spec?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, [laughs], it’s insane.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: You are insane. I mean, you’re either that or a masochist, I don’t know. Maybe, perhaps it’s going to sail right to the top, I hope it does.

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Good luck to you. But I wouldn’t sit down to write an opera on spec at gunpoint. I just couldn’t imagine doing such a thing. You know all the reasons behind this, Frank, I think opera companies are inherently timid. It costs a lot of money to put on operas, and they don’t want duds on their hands, and then they keep trying to second guess what is going to be a success and half the time they fail, or more than half the time they fail. One of the companies, I don’t even remember which company I sent it to, but I got this “falling out of your chair,” hysterically funny thing back from them. It was a checklist with little boxes and “Thank you very much, Mr. Spratlan. Please take note of the reasons that we did not accept your piece.” You know, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 14 were all checked. “Do not overestimate the intelligence of your audience” was one of the things.

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]

LEWIS SPRATLAN: “Keep it simple, stupid” or some such… “Include reprises” was one of the things. “Do it again.” One of them said, “Melody, melody, melody!” with an exclamation point. This was the little list, and, as absurd as it sounds, one has the feeling that this is actually the level of conversation that is going on in the offices of these companies. They seem to have totally lost track of what opera can do in the world, the galvanic power to pull an audience into another world. They’ve lost all interest, not all of them have, clearly, but, I mean, it’s become something that’s sort of riding along, it’s become a little world in itself, full of its self-perpetuating myths that it’s made up. It’s lost touch with what it means to be in the world and to live in the world. And, for all of these reasons, I think, it’s difficult to put an opera on, if it’s an opera that has, that’s attempting to take the form somewhere.

FRANK J. OTERI: There is this nebulous, unidentifiable “fear of audiences” in so many of our institutions, certainly within the orchestral community, although less so than it once was, and in radio. I was at the conference of the Major Orchestra Librarians Association recently. And somebody there mentioned a list that was compiled of the 25 most frequently performed operas in the 20th Century.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Was there a single American opera on the list?

FRANK J. OTERI: No, and there wasn’t a single work written in the last 90 years. Puccini was the most contemporary composer on there if I remember correctly…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: I would have certainly guessed.

FRANK J. OTERI: This is staggering.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Did anybody raise a hand and say, wait, any thoughts about this, to this group of assembled people?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it inspired a lot of discussion about the larger musical community, like, imagine a publisher taking on an opera, and the whole notion of parts and what that means, the investment and what that represents for something that basically has no legs in our society. But then you go back and you look at it and you think to yourself, okay, so maybe you don’t do any American operas, you don’t anything that’s contemporary, and you could say ditto for the symphony orchestras, or on the radio, just the so-called standard repertory. There’s a chronological disconnect and a geographical disconnect with almost all of the music, and then you wonder why only 5 percent of Americans are interested in classical music? It doesn’t connect to them. You know, why would it? And, you know, they can come back with anything they want, saying, well, you know, this isn’t tuneful, this doesn’t have tunes, this doesn’t have this, this doesn’t have that. Gangsta rap doesn’t have “tunes” and it’s immensely popular. People want something that’s visceral, they want something that’s exciting, they want something that’s going to be unlike what they know, that’s going to take them into another area and jolt them a little bit. If something’s completely complacent, it’s boring.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: If 3 or 4 opera companies in the country got serious about going against the tide of the lowest common denominator principle that they seem to be operating under, and were successful at it, it might suggest to other companies to start being a little bit braver, a little bit more in touch with the here and now. I don’t know what it would take, but it occurs to me that at the minimum it would be that. I mean, there’s got to be some sort of bellwether here, there’s got to be some leading company with a lot of visibility and a lot of press, and outreach having a success. And maybe that would make some difference. The whole thing is so unfathomable to me that I can’t even work up a sympathy for their point of view. It’s difficult for me to put myself in their position and sort of reason it from there, from their point of view.

FRANK J. OTERI: Look at the record industry. There’s a wonderful, hysterical thing that happened several years ago. All of a sudden Nonesuch has this million-selling record with Gorecki‘s Third. So all of a sudden all these major record labels were like, oh, wow, contemporary music, we can make money, let’s issue contemporary music. All these labels sprouted up as imprints of major labels that have all since folded, like Catalyst and Argo, and they were issuing all this music. Why didn’t it work? They didn’t understand. And then all these other labels issued Gorecki 3 again, thinking they’d sell, and, you know, they didn’t. “Let’s do the same thing.” Someone else issued Gorecki 3 and made money, let’s issue it and make money too. No one else’s sold. It was a fluke. Then a couple of years ago, they discovered the monks. And it became that for a bit. I think once you tie art to dollars and commerce, you’re going down a very dangerous path. And, in a way, you know, each of us in our own way is sort of lucky that we subsist separate and apart from those concerns. In this country, a record company or an orchestra or an opera company exists in the marketplace and always has to look at the bottom line. You both work here at Amherst, I work for a non-profit organization, and Harold is sort of scraping by [laughs]. You know, the “dictatorship of the bottom line” is not something that any of us really understands. But once you start mixing thinking about the bottom line with anything that’s creative, I think you’re doomed to failure.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: I guess I had enough sympathy with opera companies… the budgets are enormous for these things, as you know, and I mean, they’re not, I think it’s possible to be in business and hope to have a work generate a reasonable return on the investment, but it seems to me that if they really are counting entirely on the monetary success of something they put on, that they are reduced to a situation where they’re trying to second guess what’s going to be successful and then they run into this horrible problem that you’re talking about. Seems to me the answer, which we’ll never see in this country, I think, would be wholesale public involvement in the support of opera companies. But it runs so thoroughly against the tide to do that.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, look at a country like Finland

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Oh, of course!

FRANK J. OTERI: The Savonlinna Opera Festival does so many contemporary operas. It’s amazing.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: That’s the one way to pull the “bottom line-ism” out of the thinking of the producers of these companies. But we’re stuck in a sad situation here. I mean, there was a little bulge of the ‘80′s where it looked as if the NEA was actually going to become something real, and we’d crossed the line, and we can see how utterly short-lived that was, and what a mistake it was to imagine that that line had been crossed. And, in fact, I think might have actually dipped down the other way. The NEA’s in worse shape than it was before. I applied for an NEA grant to support the performance of Life is a Dream, and not a dime.

JAMES MARANISS:And the support we got, which was a privatized form of public financing, we got from Amherst College which really allowed us to do it.