Lincoln, Neb. - The University of Nebraska–Lincoln School of Music’s Opera program brings Willa Cather’s timeless novel of life on the Nebraska prairie to the Kimball Hall stage this November with the premiere of the newly revised opera “O Pioneers!” by UNL Professor of Composition and Director of Orchestras Tyler White.
The opera, which originally premiered at UNL in 1999, returns in a revised version with performances on Friday, Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 4 at 3 p.m.
“At the time we originally performed the piece, it represented such an important milestone in my career to-date that obviously, it’s something that stays in one’s mind,” White said.
Back in 1999, White and Hixson-Lied Professor and Director of Opera William Shomos, wanted to collaborate on a new work. Commissioned by the School of Music, “O Pioneers!” was the first opera composed by White and was the first operatic treatment of a full-length Cather novel.
“When I look back on my career here, I think that will always be one of the most special highlights,” Shomos said. “But I like to think I’m a little smarter now in how to go about dealing with a new work, and I just wanted to reinvest in it. I know Tyler also felt there were some things left ‘undone’ about it the last time around. It was hot off the press then, and we were doing a lot of things on the fly.”
Shomos said “O Pioneers!” is perhaps the Cather novel that is most obviously appropriate for operatic treatment. Set against the panoramic sweep of the southern Nebraska prairie, “O Pioneers!” tells the story of Alexandra Bergson, a fiercely independent landowner whose devotion to her land and its promise may cost her the love of her life.
“You have the obvious things—there’s murder, infidelity, two great love stories,” Shomos said. “But more than that, I think what makes this a great opera is the musical identities that Tyler has attached to the characters and to the land. They’re just great characters that seem to be ripe for musical description.”
Talea Bloch, a graduate student from Lincoln, Neb., plays Alexandra Bergson.
“The opera is absolutely beautiful,” Bloch said. “It is challenging, but worth the hours we are putting into it. The vocal lines are lyric, sensitive to Cather’s text and really show off the human voice. One of the great things about doing a new opera is there are no expectations. No famous opera singers have mastered the role. It is so freeing to be able to make your own choices and see your character just the way you want.”
Setting Cather’s novel to operatic form was not without challenges, however, White said.
“The first enormous challenge was the translation of the novel into a workable libretto,” he said. “I found the greatest challenge in doing that, at least the first time around, was my own love of Cather’s original text. Because to translate a novel into an operatic libretto is one gigantic process of excision—it’s just cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. And yet Cather’s prose is so beautiful.”
White said the extra years of experience helped when he began revising it in 2006 while on faculty development leave.
“I have much more of a sense of where musical details can fill in for narrative content or for places in parts of dialogue between characters that can be omitted and worked into the music, so they are in a less representational way,” White said. “I found much of what I’ve done in revising the piece has been to make many, many small cuts to tighten the dramatic flow.”
Shomos said the music sounds eternal.
“There is something about so much of Tyler’s musical gesture that makes you think you’ve heard it before,” Shomos said. “There’s something eternal-sounding about the music. That’s where he connects with this sense of the land—these stories of Cather that keep repeating themselves over and over again.”
In addition to Bloch, the cast includes graduate students Kayla Wilkens as Marie Shabata, Adam Fieldson as Carl Linstrum, Joshua Zink as Emil Bergson, Justin Strong as Frank Shabata, Matthew Clegg as Lou Bergson, Jared Hiscock as Ivar and Jenny Smith as Mrs. Bergson. Undergraduate student Timothy Patrick Madden is Oscar Bergson.
Shomos directs, while White conducts the orchestra. The set design is by Assistant Professor Laurel Shoemaker.
“It’s very minimal furniture, minimal props, minimal set pieces,” Shomos said. “The playing space is essentially a raked platform that floats in the middle of the stage, and it’s going to be surrounded by projections.”
The projections will be the watercolors of local artist Richard Schilling.
“A couple of years ago, we were still working on a concept for the set, I was going past the Hewit Center, and I saw a sign outside the Great Plains Art Museum that said ‘Richard Schilling: Watercolors of Willa Cather’s Places.’ And I thought, ‘Okay, I need to look at this.’ I looked at his watercolors, and I fell in love with them.”
Schilling’s watercolors, which include various landscapes at various times of the year, will set the mood of what is happening on stage.
“So you have this human drama that plays in the center, surrounded by the vastness of the land,” Shomos said. “Richard has been so generous with us and supportive in the process.”
Every element in the production intensifies the whole piece, White said, which he noticed after an early run through in October.
“We got through this piano run through, and it was very powerful, but then we don’t even have Richard Schilling’s watercolors yet. We don’t have that whole marvelous environmental sense. We don’t have the orchestral color, and the whole orchestral color is intended all along to be almost a character, like the landscape itself, in forming everything else.”
Student Justin Strong, who is from Abilene, Texas, said he has enjoyed the experience of working with White, the composer.
“It is a rare opportunity to get feedback and know exactly what the composer intended when he was writing,” he said. “From a performer’s standpoint, it is a rhythmically demanding work.”
The opera has universal appeal.
“Cather’s story, White’s music and Shomos’ staging fit so well together,” Bloch said. “I can’t imagine people not enjoying ‘O Pioneers!’”
Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students/seniors and are available in advance through the Lied Center box office at 402-472-4747 or 800-432-3231, or at the door one hour before the performances.