In 1999, Tyler Goodrich White premiered his first opera, an adaptation of Willa Cather’s novel of life on the 19th century Nebraska prairie “O! Pioneers.”
Friday night, “The Gambler’s Son,” the second opera by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of composition and conducting, will premiere at Kimball Hall, performed by UNL Opera and the UNL Symphony.
It’s based on a novel by another of Nebraska’s great authors, Mari Sandoz — “Son of the Gamblin’ Man” and tells another frontier story — this time of the founding of Cozad and the tribulations of the man who gave his name to the town, John J. Cozad.
The two operas are related, not only because they come from Nebraska’s best-known 20th century novelists.
"‘The Gambler’s Son’ has had kind of a long genesis,” White said. "The idea was suggested to me by Jane Rohman soon after the premiere of ‘O! Pioneers’. Jane is from Cozad, and she thought ‘Son of the Gamblin’ Man’ could be the basis for an opera. I read it then and found some compelling elements in it. But I didn’t get back to it for about 15 years.”
That was in 2016, when White returned to Rohman, a longtime opera supporter, for a commission. In 2017, White’s wife, UNL English professor Laura White, wrote the libretto. In 2018, he wrote the music.
The words of the libretto come before the music in the creation of an opera, Tyler White said. The composer then creates the musical lines that will be sung, fitting them to the libretto, which can be altered as the piece takes shape.
“It’s nice for a composer to have a working relationship with the librettist so things can develop,” White said. “You can refine the libretto to amplify the characters. The wonderful thing is my wife, Laura, is just a master of storytelling. She was able to craft Sandoz’s very expansive story into something that can be effectively portrayed on the stage in just over two hours.”
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The opera opens with a scenario lifted from the final chapter of Sandoz’s book in which the elderly Cozad, then using the name Richard H. Lee, is having his portrait done by his son, the internationally known painter and writer Robert Henri, by far the most famous artist to have been born in Nebraska.
“I used that to make a frame story for the whole matter of frontier Nebraska,” White said. “One of the interesting things about Robert Henri, the painter, is he believed to paint a psychologically revealing portrait, you have to know that person really well. So there’s the parenting thing — how do you get to know your parents as people?”
The opera then follows a dual story intertwining the father-son relationship with the narrative of Cozad, founding the town on the Platte River. Conflicts there led to the elder Cozad killing a man in self-defense, then taking his family and fleeing to the East Coast, where they changed their names. There, the patriarch became one of the developers of the Atlantic City boardwalk.
The opera was cast in the spring, and the singers have been working on the piece since the school year began in August. The symphony began working on it in the last month or so.
A version of “The Gambler’s Son,” performed with an eight-piece chamber ensemble with a cut-down set, premiered last month at Cozad High School. But the full production, with its large sets and orchestra, will premiere Friday.
So far, White said, rehearsals have gone well, and the opera works as music and story.
“I’ve written some demanding arias and ensembles,” White said. “They really are singing them well. ... It’s a story that, as John J. Cozad recognized, has great dramatic potential. It’s got all kinds of conflicts. It’s got man against nature, man against man, man against himself. It’s got a hint of marital infidelity and violence — all the elements opera really thrives on. And then we move beyond into the psychological realm as Henri comes to know his father and his father comes to understand his son.”
“The Gambler’s Son,” White said, is also an accessible piece that could provide a good introduction for those drawn to the production to see the Cozad story on stage.
“For people who are not familiar with or not well-versed in opera, it’s a great entry point,” he said. “It’s in English. The singers enunciate extremely well. There will be supertitles, but I don’t think you’ll need them. You can understand the words. The drama is quite hard-hitting and very approachable and the music encompasses various styles, from the 19th century to today.”
And, like “O! Pioneers,” it tells another legendary Nebraska story.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.