James Maraniss, librettist of long-silent opera, dies at 76
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James Maraniss, librettist of long-silent opera, dies at 76
James Maraniss in 2015. Maraniss, a Spanish scholar who wrote the libretto for an opera that was finished in 1978, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 but was not fully staged for another decade, died on Jan. 9, 2022, at his home in Chesterfield, Mass. He was 76. Amherst College via The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- James Maraniss, a Spanish scholar who wrote the libretto for an opera that was finished in 1978, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 but was not fully staged for another decade, died Jan. 9 at his home in Chesterfield, Massachusetts. He was 76.

The cause was a heart attack, his brother, David, said.

Maraniss, a professor of Spanish and European studies at Amherst College, had never written a libretto when composer Lewis Spratlan, a faculty colleague, approached him in 1975 to collaborate on an opera based on Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s early 17th-century drama “La Vida es sueño” (“Life Is a Dream”). The piece had been commissioned by the New Haven Opera Theater in Connecticut.

Excited at how Calderon’s vivid writing quickly conjured musical images in his mind, Spratlan told Maraniss the news about the commission — not knowing that Maraniss was an expert on Calderon’s work.

“It was a wonderful happenstance that this was the case,” Spratlan, now retired from Amherst’s music department, recalled in a phone interview. The two men, friends and neighbors in adjoining apartments in a campus house, soon started working together and completed the three-act opera in 1978. That year, Maraniss also published “On Calderon,” a study of the writer’s plays, including “La Vida es sueño,” which is about a prince in conflict with his father, the king.

Maraniss’ familiarity with Calderon’s rhythms and language animated the libretto.

“Jim managed to take extremely elaborate 17th-century Spanish, the equivalent of Elizabethan English, with very exalted levels of diction, and rendered it into modern English that preserved all the grandeur of Golden Age Spanish,” Spratlan said.

By the time they were finished, though, the New Haven Opera Theater had gone out of business, and no other opera company would produce it. Frustrated for many years, Spratlan finally raised money for concert performances of the second act in early 2000, first at Amherst, then at Harvard. Spratlan nominated himself for the Pulitzer for music and won.

Still, “Life Is A Dream” did not receive a full production until 2010, at the Santa Fe Opera.

In his review in The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini described the libretto as “elegantly poetic,” and said that Maraniss and Spratlan “honor Calderón by adhering closely to the philosophically ambiguous play, considered the ‘Hamlet’ of Spanish drama. Sometimes too closely.”

David Maraniss said his brother didn’t complain about the long wait for a full production.

“But that libretto meant as much to Jim as anything he had done in his life,” Maraniss, a journalist and biographer who won a Pulitzer in 1993 for his coverage of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign for The Washington Post, said in a phone interview. “I can’t say the waiting was as torturous for Jim as it was for Lew, but it was a great feeling of relief when it was finally produced.”

James Maraniss and Spratlan won the 2016 Charles Ives Opera Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

James Elliott Maraniss was born March 22, 1945, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He moved several times with his family before settling in 1957 in Madison, Wisconsin, where his father, Elliott, a journalist who had been fired from his job as rewrite man at The Detroit Times after an informant identified him as a communist, found work at The Capital Times. His mother, Mary (Cummins) Maraniss, was an editor at the University of Wisconsin Press.

After graduating from Harvard in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature, Maraniss earned a master’s there in the same subject. He then began work on his doctorate in Romance languages and literature at Princeton University. It was granted in 1975.

Following several months working for Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucey on Native American and migrant worker issues, Maraniss was hired at Amherst in early 1972 where he remained until he retired in 2015. He taught Spanish culture and literature in Spanish.

Until recently, he had been working on a translation of “Don Quixote.”

In addition to his brother, Maraniss is survived by his wife, Gigi Kaeser; his daughter, Lucia Maraniss; his sons, Ben and Elliott; his stepson, Michael Kelly; and his sister Jean Alexander. Another sister, Wendy, died in 1997.

After his work on “Life Is a Dream,” Maraniss wrote the Portuguese lyrics to James Taylor’s 1985 song “Only a Dream in Rio” and translated fiction and essays in the 1990s by Antonio Benitez-Rojo, a Cuban émigré and a major voice in Caribbean literature who was a professor of Spanish at Amherst.

“I was bored with being an academic until I began a new life as his translator,” Maraniss said in an obituary of Benitez-Rojo, “and in a sense his presenter to the English-speaking world, to share that degree of his power, which was that of a great art.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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