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“The Gambler’s Son” tells the story of John Cozad, founder of Cozad, Nebraska.

Opera Premieres in Town Where Story Began

A plague of locusts, a bison stampede, a fatal shooting, an escape in the night. The 1873 founding of Cozad, Nebraska, by gambler John Cozad had plenty of melodrama for an opera.

Nebraska’s Glenn Korff School of Music debuted “The Gambler’s Son,” an opera about Cozad’s ill-fated attempt to establish a preeminent metropolis on the Plains. It premiered in November 2019 at Cozad, a west central Nebraska town of 4,000, to a full house before concluding at Nebraska’s Kimball Recital Hall.

Despite the story’s Wild West excitement, Nebraska’s Tyler White and Laura White were determined not to make a “cowboy opera.” Instead, they focused on Cozad’s complicated relationship with his famous son, the painter Robert Henri.

“The core of the opera is examining their relationship and how they came to understand each other,” said composer Tyler White, director of orchestras and professor of composition and conducting. “It’s a family drama that happens to be set in the Old West.”

The opera is adapted from Mari Sandoz’s novel “Son of the Gamblin’ Man: The Youth of an Artist.” Laura White, John E. Weaver Professor of English, had the di cult task of pulling key moments from Sandoz’s action-packed novel to write a libretto that didn’t overwhelm.

Cozad “was almost this tragic hero because he had huge dreams for Cozad, the town,” she said. “Then it was just one horrible thing after another.”

Tyler White set the libretto within an eclectic music style that animates the characters and appeals to a modern audience.

The collaborative duo’s e orts gave William Shomos, director of opera and Richard H. Larson Distinguished Professor of Music, the rare opportunity to produce an original opera set in Nebraska. For Shomos’ team, the highlight was performing it where the story took place.

“The mission of UNL opera is to promote new American works and to take opera to rural Nebraska, to share what we’re doing and let people experience it. Thus far, the response has been great,” Shomos said.

An audience member called the first live opera performed in Cozad a gift to the town.

“The Gambler’s Son” was supported by the James C. and Rhonda Seacrest Tour Nebraska Opera Fund, Jane Rohman, Willard Bellamy family, Ivan and Shirley Paulsen family, Lincoln Community Foundation, UNL Friends of Opera and the Wilson Foundation.

+ Additional content for Opera Premieres in Town Where Story Began

Nebraska news release: ‘The Gambler’s Son’ opera to premiere Nov. 15 

Media mention: Gamblin’ Man (Nebraska Quarterly, Winter 2019)

Media mention: Opera based on Sandoz novel about Cozad and its founder to premiere Friday at Kimball Hall (Lincoln Journal Star, 11/12/2019)


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