The Spanish master Manuel de Falla was a slow-working and fastidious composer who produced a small number of perfectly crafted masterpieces. But he served a kind of apprenticeship writing zarzuelas, six of them in three years' time. This Spanish genre of semi-popular musical drama got him no respect as a serious composer, so he was tempted to try writing a real opera, albeit one full of Spanish and Gypsy folk elements, when the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts announced a competition for a new opera, with a prompt premiere performance offered as part of the prize.
Falla composed this opera on a text by Carlos Fernández Shaw. The "short life" of the title belongs to a young, love-struck Gypsy girl named Salud, who is hopelessly in love with Paco, a cad who strings her along although he is betrothed to a rich girl of his own station in life. Salud establishes the truth only on the night of their wedding, when she looks into her rival's family courtyard. She then confronts her faithless lover, bitterly accusing him. When he further betrays her by insisting that she is lying, she falls dead at his feet as her family curses him.
The opera is full of colorful Spanish music, including two well-known and often-excerpted Spanish Dances. In addition, the scene around Salud's house involves work songs for a group of offstage blacksmiths, and the wedding party scene is full of flamenco music.
The promised premiere fell through. In disappointment, Falla moved to Paris to study and work there, hoping for more respect that he received at home. The French, particularly Debussy and Dukas, did appreciate the way Falla used his Spanish heritage in music, and Falla's works began to receive performances. Eventually he secured a production of La vida breve at the Municipal Casino Theater in Nice, on April 1, 1913. The opera was given there in a French translation by Paul Milliet, with some adjustment of the vocal line by Falla to fit the new text. It was in that form that the work gained its initial international fame. The Spanish premiere soon followed, in November 1914 in Madrid.
The opera shows Falla's deep understanding of the music of Andalusia, particularly the Gypsy music, flamenco, also known as cante jondo. Although an early opera by de Falla, La Vida Breve already shows his deep commitment to indigenous Andalusian music, Moorish folk elements, and themes of a cosmic and transcendental nature. Falla left what conductor Eduardo Mata considered to be an interpretational problem in his handling of cante jondo: all such passages in the opera are written for an unembellished line with uniform strummed guitar chords in 3/8 time. This, Mata thought, was an insurance policy that would let the opera be performed even where there was no authentic flamenco guitarist or cantaor available. Most performances and recordings of the opera render it as written. Mata believed that Falla intended, where possible, a real flamenco performance, with improvisation based on his written parts, even when these players and singers might use a more modern flamenco style than Falla knew decades earlier.