Opera brings Cozad early years to life

Published: Oct. 15, 2019 at 12:11 PM CDT
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University of Nebraska Lincoln students will premiere a new opera in Cozad, and the story focuses on the founder of the town.

"The Gambler's Son" is adapted from Mari Sandoz's 1960 novel, "Son of the Gamblin' Man", which tells the true story of the founding of Cozad, Nebraska, of its larger-than-life founder, John J. Cozad. "And the opera concerns the relationship with his son Robert Henri," UNL Director of Opera William Shomos said. "Robert Henri is charged with painting this portrait of his father. It essentially means in order to really capture the portrait in just the right way, Robert needs to go into his memory back of what life was like back in those early days in Cozad, Nebraska, to truly understand who his father is and was."

The opera is centered in Robert Henri's studio. Henri went on to be an internationally-known artist and art teacher. We're told the opera uses "flashbacks" to take the audience back to when Henri was a child. UNL Music Professor Tyler White composed this original work, and his wife Laura is the librettist. White says the production is an opportunity for the public to learn more about the life of John J. Cozad, who arrived on the 100th Meridian in the 1870's with very little there except the railroad. "And. he has these grandiose dreams of founding a city that will be clean, and pure and new, and will attract people and become a great metropolis," White said. "He even has dreams that someday the national capitol would be moved from Washington to the middle of the country."

The opera touches on how John J. Cozad was a gambler, a land promoter, and the fact that he was not easy to get along with. "As the town grows, the conflict grows as well," White said. "Ultimately, the conflict leads to a fight where he kills a man in self-defense."

After the killing, John J. Cozad and his family fled from the area, and lived the rest of their lives under assumed names. Robert Cozad changed his name to Robert Henri, and later became the famous painter. This kind of drama and intrigue is captured in the music of the opera.

Patrick McNally is a doctoral opera student at UNL, and he will portray John J. Cozad. He says being a part of this, is something special. "He goes out into a vast landscape and thinks of a brilliant new town, that will be a jewel, and at the same time, he has some darkness in him," McNally said.

Those who are bringing the early years of Cozad to life on stage in this opera hope their performance will only enhance the rich history that can be found in Nebraska. "The fact that we are able to dig some of that up and present it, and bring it to life again, I think is really great," McNally said.

The opera will premiere in Cozad, Nebraska, at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, October 17th, at the Cozad High School Auditorium. It will then be staged at Kimball Recital Hall at the University of Nebraska, both Friday, November 15th (7:30 p.m.) and Sunday, November 17th (3 p.m.). To reserve your free ticket to the Cozad performance, visit

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