Area musicians to receive awards from American Academy of Arts and Letters

  • From left Kate Soper (photo by Liz Linder); Lewis Spratlan (photo by Gigi Kaeser); James Maraniss (photo by Samuel Mainster/Amherst College)

For the Gazette
Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Three local musicians have won prestigious awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, based in New York City.

Composer Kate Soper, an assistant professor of music at Smith College in Northampton, has received the $40,000 Virgil Thompson Award for her vocal work.

Composer and Amherst College emeritus professor of music Lewis Spratlan and Amherst College emeritus professor of Spanish, librettist James Maraniss, have received the $50,000 Charles Ives Opera Prize for their opera, “Life is a Dream.”

The Academy, founded in 1898, honors leading American architects, artists, composers and writers. The recipients were chosen by a jury of Academy members.

“It’s important to set standards,” said Yehudi Wyner, president of the Academy, in a phone interview Tuesday. “These awards, when people get to know the work, make a statement about what the standards of the musical community are at present.”

‘Forward-looking’ work

The Virgil Thomson Award, created in 2014 and endowed by the Virgil Thomson Foundation, supports American vocal composers. 

Soper, 34, is being recognized for her musical adaptations of literary texts, including the works of Aristotle, Franz Kafka, Lydia Davis and Jorie Graham. Wyner says the jury chose to honor Soper because her work was the most exploratory of the nominees.

“The work is exhilarating and dramatic,” Wyner said. “It seemed to us that it was the most forward-looking and creative looking of all the vocal work.”

Soper earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Rice University in 2003 and a master’s degree and doctorate in musical arts from Columbia University in 2011.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Soper said she plans to use the award to support her writing, including an opera she will be working on over the next year.

“It’s really thrilling. It really came out of the blue for me,” Soper said. “It was just an amazing recognition and I’m very grateful and humble and excited to put it to use.”

Opera, a long time coming

The Charles Ives Opera Prize, given just once before, in 2008, and supported through royalties from the music of composer Charles Ives, is given to a composer and a librettist for work performed in the last 10 years.

It goes this time to Spratlan, 75, and Maraniss, 71, for "Life is a Dream,” based on a 1635 play by the Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca.

“I'm completely thrilled, of course,” Spratlan wrote in an email to the Gazette. “I had no idea this was coming — I hadn't even known there was such an award. And the financial aspect of it is much appreciated, I don't have to add.”

The opera tells the story of a Polish prince who must fight to succeed his father on the throne. Though the two completed the opera in 1978, it remained unproduced until 2000.

“It was written for the New Haven Opera Theater, but the company ceased operations before it could be staged,” Spratlan explained. “I imagined it would be quickly picked up by some other producers, but enormous efforts to peddle it yielded nothing and it sat on the shelf for over 20 years, little thought of by me or anybody else.”

Then, in 2000, he says, “I was urged to put on the concert version of Act II ... which ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize.”

That it took so long to be produced is surprising, Wyner said.

“This was staggering to the entire music community — that this work had laid dormant and stagnant for so long was astonishing,” he said.

Spratlan, who taught at Amherst College from 1970 to 2006, has received Guggenheim, Rockefeller and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships throughout his career.

He wrote part of the opera using the 12-tone technique, also known as dodecaphony, in which all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another.

“The style is reserved for the King, Basilio, who is a pedantic and rigid ruler,” Spratlan said. “All around him are far freer, as is their music.”

Wyner says the jury chose the opera for its award because of its musical and theatrical complexity.

“The opera may be considered esoteric, but so be it,” Wyner said. “A lot of Beethoven is considered esoteric, too,”

Maraniss, who lives in Chesterfield, wrote the libretto for “Life is a Dream.”

He is the author of “On Calderón” (University of Missouri Press, 1978), and has translated into English multiple plays, essays, stories and novels. He also provided lyrics for Spratlan’s “Jansky’s Hiss.”

“This is an opera that we wrote 40 years ago,” Maraniss said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I feel happy to have been recognized or appreciated at the end of a long career.”

The recipients will receive their awards at a May 18 ceremony, at the Academy’s headquarters in New York.

“Most of us, as composers, live in a kind of obscurity,” Wyner, said. “Any time our colleagues and peers recognize and admire our work it gives us the strength to go on.”