UNL Opera premieres opera based on Sandoz novel on founding of Cozad

Tyler White (center) rehearses with Patrick McNally (left) and Matthew Gerhold. The Glenn Korff School of Music is premiering a new opera “The Gambler’s Son” by composer Tyler Goodrich White and librettist Laura White.
Tyler White (center) rehearses with Patrick McNally (left) and Matthew Gerhold. The Glenn Korff School of Music is premiering a new opera “The Gambler’s Son” by composer Tyler Goodrich White and librettist Laura White.

UNL Opera premieres opera based on Sandoz novel on founding of Cozad

calendar icon23 Oct 2019    user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen

Lincoln, Neb.--The Glenn Korff School of Music is premiering a new opera “The Gambler’s Son” by composer Tyler Goodrich White and librettist Laura White. The opera is adapted from Mari Sandoz’s 1960 novel, “Son of the Gamblin’ Man,” which tells the story of the gambler and townsite promoter who founded Cozad, Nebraska, and of his family, particularly his young son, who became the world-famous artist and teacher known as Robert Henri.
Performances are Friday, Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. in Kimball Recital Hall. Tickets are $20 general and $10 students/seniors and are available at the door or in advance at the Lied Center Box Office at (402) 472-4747 or online at https://go.unl.edu/0a8c.
The story was compelling to White, who is a professor of composition and conducting and director of orchestras in the Glenn Korff School of Music.
“It’s intensely dramatic,” he said. “It’s got all the kinds of conflicts you expect from an opera or really any great story. You have the basic literary conflicts of man against nature, man against man, man against himself.”
In the final chapter of the novel, the now elderly John Cozad, known as Richard H. Lee, has his portrait painted by his son. White used that to frame his opera.
“I used that as the frame story and to tell the story of the frontier struggles of Cozad in the form of flashbacks through a variety of episodes that define the characters and that Henri has to rediscover in order to create this psychologically revealing portrait of his father. One of Henri’s mottos was ‘to paint a man is to know him.’ He had to re-examine his own childhood and his father’s remarkable career.”
William Shomos, the Richard H. Larson Distinguished Professor of Voice and Director of Opera, said he was on board from the get-go to produce the opera from White, who also composed the opera “O Pioneers!” based on Willa Cather’s novel, which premiered at the university in 1999.
“I’ve been given the gift of a lifetime, and I feel the responsibility to be the best possible steward of that gift,” Shomos said. “My goal, simply stated, is to create the most beautiful stage realization of Tyler and Laura’s opera that I can. Nebraska has become our home these past 25 years. I think of this production as something of a thank-you to the state, presented with deepest gratitude for the life my family and I have enjoyed here.”    

Shomos said the story is especially suited for opera.

“The subject matter of John J. Cozad’s past, even though true, feels so much larger than life,” he said. “There’s Wild West violence, danger, betrayal, and risk. . . all on a grand scale. Cozad was this enormous personality, with an enormous vision for what could become of the 100th Meridian in Western Nebraska. And yet, there is also an intimate focus on the uneasy relationship between a son and his father, which speaks to us on the most personal of levels.”
The opera premiered in Cozad on Oct. 17 at Cozad High School, thanks to the generous gift from the James C. and Rhonda Seacrest Tour Nebraska Opera Fund.
The Glenn Korff School of Music and UNL Friends of Opera will honor Rhonda Seacrest on Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m. with a tree planting near Westbrook Music Building in appreciation for her support of UNL Opera. In addition to the Tour Nebraska Opera Fund, created in 2015, the Seacrests sponsored two trips to Ireland for the UNL Opera program to compete in the Waterford Light Opera Festivals in 2002 and 2007, where it won Best Opera in 2007. Their gifts have also helped support a chamber/opera orchestra and the creation of the Ariel Bybee Professorship, among many others.
“The Board of UNL Friends of Opera deeply appreciates Rhonda’s devotion to the UNL Opera program and wishes to recognize her in a way that symbolizes the outreach and growth that her contributions will have on the UNL Opera program and on opera in Nebraska,” Shomos said.
White said it was special to premiere the opera in Cozad.
“In the summer of 2018, we presented a couple of scenes in Cozad, and the welcome there was just overwhelming,” he said. “Of course, everybody knows the story, and their appreciation for the outside interest and for what we were trying to do in expressively in the opera was just really marvelous. Having the first performance happen in Cozad is, I hope, a very big deal for the folks there, and it’s, quite frankly, a big deal for me and for the opera program.”
Patrick McNally, a graduate student in the Glenn Korff School of Music, who plays John J. Cozad in the opera, was thrilled to premiere a work centered on the founding of Cozad in the town itself.
“This opera, by its subject matter, will connect to that audience (and really all Nebraska audiences) in a special way, and is sure to add an extra layer to our performance,” McNally said. “We at UNL have three primary missions of teaching, research and service. Doing a brand new work that has a component of outreach beyond our direct community seems to accomplish all three quite well. We strive to be a cultural resource for the whole state, and it’s projects like this one that help us achieve that goal.”
McNally plays the younger version of Cozad, a gambler who made fortunes playing faro on riverboats and in towns. He turned his winnings into real estate development.
“Cozad is a very complex character who is driven by ambition, a desire to keep his family safe, the urge to build, and a willingness to risk it all,” McNally said. “It’s a blast to play such a deep and dynamic role. Plus, I get a killer aria.”
White said the character-defining arias are an important part of the opera.
“Cozad’s big aria at the beginning of the first act is a real standout, as is his wife Theresa’s in the second act when it becomes clear that in his travels all over the country, gambling and raising money through his amazing success as a gambler, that during all that, Cozad has probably not been entirely faithful to her. That realization leads to this aria that I hope will be very affecting.”
Another favorite scene for White comes after the killing of Alfred Pearson and after Cozad flees Nebraska when the rest of the family realize it’s time for them to leave as well.
“There’s a very lyrical trio about leaving Nebraska and what you’re leaving behind,” White said. “Robert, the budding artist, realizes he will never see his Nebraska skies again. The older brother, Johnny, is very attached to the family ponies he will never see again. And Theresa will never see the town which she calls ‘this unhappy town.’ They’re all bidding farewell, but then looking forward to all being reunited in some unknown destination.”
Nic Caberos, a senior music education major from Papillion, Nebraska, plays Pearson, a rancher who moved to Cozad in search of adventure and prosperity.
“Pearson is a hurt man, someone who has been dealt trauma and life’s worst hands, and I’m really looking forward to diving into the depths of these emotions and how they impact his decisions throughout the opera,” he said.
Caberos said audiences will be treated to wonderful music by White unlike anything they’ve heard before.
“He cleverly sets the mood for each of the Wild West scenes while beautifully painting sweeping and reflective melodies in the New York scenes,” he said. “Dr. White uses tonal traditions of American folksong mixed with dark, dissonant colors that create and release tension so perfectly as the opera progresses. The staging, lighting, and costuming for ‘The Gambler’s Son’ is beyond brilliant as well. The design team has done a wonderful job of creating an immersive experience for the audience and the performers into the wild mind and world of John J. Cozad.”

Shomos said, “The music is eclectic, in the best sense of the word, always serving the drama at hand.”

He also said White’s textural choices are also remarkable.

“There are a handful of moments in the opera where the orchestra completely drops out, leaving the characters to soliloquize unaccompanied,” Shomos said. “I think these moments are going to knock people’s socks off. It’s all really beautiful.”

Caberos said diving into these characters and what they did, and their visions of the future is relatable.
“I’m very proud to be a part of a production that represents the American Dream and what it has meant for the people of Nebraska, both past and present,” Caberos said.

White encourages everyone to tell their friends about this production.

“Especially for folks who may not have experience with opera, I think this is a story that I think can really reach people in a very powerful way,” he said. “Bill Shomos’s staging is very insightful, and he really plays on the notions of self-discovery and the awakening of memory.”

That was something that was important to Henri, as an artist, as well.

“The whole business of living and living itself as a creative act,” White said. “That enables him to paint his father when he realizes that everything his father has been through, and despite all his many flaws, his greatness and his arrogance and his unique ability to tick people off—all of that coming together helps him to realize that his father’s whole life has been a creative process. This is something, I hope, will be elevating and inspiring to audiences.”
“The Gambler’s Son” was created with the generous support of Jane Rohman, the family of Willard Bellamy, the family of Ivan and Shirley Paulsen, the Lincoln Community Foundation, the UNL Friends of Opera and the Wilson Foundation.