La vida breve, Manuel de Falla’s musical drama in two acts to a libretto by Carlos Fernandez-Shaw, appeared at a time when Europe’s music theatres were ruled by verism. Fateful passions, the tragic destinies of simple people and perfidious denouements – this and nothing else was what attracted composers. It is in such a key that de Falla told the story of a girl abandoned by her beloved. The gypsy flavour of the opera makes La vida breve unique. The composer turned to gypsy themes and the gypsy music of Andalusia – the flamenco and the cante jondo (“deep song”). Of all the treasures of Spanish folklore, de Falla chose this medium – then still little used by other composers – and went on to create such masterpieces as the ballet El amor brujo. In the opera La vida breve he first discovered the cante jondo, which inspired him to compose the finest passages – Salud’s romance and the dances in Act II.
It was with this opera that de Falla had to test on himself the theory that there was no “prophet” in his native land. La vida breve was written by the composer when he was already almost thirty and at a time when he had already composed another opera and six zarzuelas, only one of which had been staged, the others languishing on his desk. De Falla took part in a Spanish opera competition with his new work that was run by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in San Fernando in 1905. At the end of the competition he was declared the winner. But no-one in Spain lifted a finger to help the winner’s opera be staged. Offended and disappointed, the composer left to work in Paris where he remained for a long time. New impressions and friendships and meeting Debussy and Ravel broadened his horizons. His well deserved acclaim finally came – La vida breve was first performed in Nice on 1 April 1913 in a French translation by Paul Millet. It was then successfully staged in Paris at the Opera Comique. When, with the onset of World War I, de Falla returned to his native Spain he returned triumphant, acclaimed in the music capital of the world, and the opera La vida breve was at last performed in Madrid.