Glenn Korff School of Music bringing ‘O Pioneers’ opera to stage Nov. 12

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Glenn Korff School of Music bringing ‘O Pioneers’ opera to stage Nov. 12

Sebastian Sorensen (left) as Carl Linstrum and Sarah Wibben as Alexandra Bergson in Tyler Goodrich White’s “O Pioneers!” Photo courtesy of the Glenn Korff School of Music.
Sebastian Sorensen (left) as Carl Linstrum and Sarah Wibben as Alexandra Bergson in Tyler Goodrich White’s “O Pioneers!” Photo courtesy of the Glenn Korff School of Music.

The Glenn Korff School of Music opera program will present “O Pioneers!” at 2 p.m. on Nov. 12 at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln.

“O Pioneers!” was composed by Tyler Goodrich White, professor of composition and conducting and director of orchestras. The opera originally premiered in 1999 and was performed again in 2012. It is based on Willa Cather’s 1913 novel — her first masterpiece and one of the most compelling tales of the Great Plains. It focuses on a family of Swedish-American immigrants living in Nebraska at the turn of the 20th century in the fictional town of Hanover, Nebraska. It follows protagonist Alexandra Bergson as she grows from a child into an adult. It’s a story of hope, perseverance and forgiveness.

“We are excited to present Tyler White’s opera, ‘O Pioneers!’ at the magnificent Lied Center for Performing Arts,” said Felix Olschofka, director of the Glenn Korff School of Music. “Tyler’s opera, combined with Bill Shomos’ skillful direction, is a triumph. Following its successful tour of Nebraska, we are coming home to Lincoln to perform it with a full orchestra. It is not to be missed.”

Presented in connection with the 2023 Cather Sesquicentennial, the production features student and alumni singers of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Opera, the NU Chamber Singers and a full orchestra. The performance will be conducted by the composer with stage direction by William Shomos, the Richard H. Larson Distinguished Professor of Music (Voice) and Director of Opera. Design will be done in collaboration with the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film.

“Tyler and I have been talking about it since we performed ‘Gambler’s Son’ [in 2019] — that we wanted one more go around with ‘O Pioneers!,’” Shomos said. “It really holds a special place for both of us. And then we got to this year and here we are at the 150th anniversary of Willa Cather. The writing was on the wall. This is the time to do it.”

White said “O Pioneers!” is probably the most operatic Cather novel in its conception.

“It has an adultery and murder plot in there. And then there’s endangered love, lost love and all sorts of very heartfelt and lyrical subjects,” he said. “Also, it’s one of her novels that has the clearest sort of plot arc.”

White has continued to update the opera since it premiered in 1999 and completed his final revisions in 2019.

“I made some important changes gradually over the years since the first production,” White said. “The main revision was that originally the show had passages of spoken dialog, and I’ve recast all that musically, so the whole piece is sung virtually beginning to end.”

“O Pioneers!” recently completed a statewide tour through the Lied Center’s Arts Across Nebraska program, which included performances in Scottsbluff, McCook, and Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud.

“I think the experience and the excitement of getting to do a show in a different space and having to adapt to different settings is really good for the cast and crew,” Shomos said. “And it’s a lot of fun. We connect with the communities outside of Lincoln. The University of Nebraska belongs to the entire state. It’s so important that we share the work that we do here with as many people as we have the resources to do.”

Alumnus Sebastian Sorensen (B.M. 2017; M.M. 2023) plays Carl Linstrum. He is eager to perform an opera based on Cather’s novel.

“Willa Cather is able to capture the character of the land with passion, and her characters are incredibly detailed and complex,” Sorensen said. “This opera celebrates one of my favorite authors who is dear to me as a native Nebraskan myself. Opera is a wonderful story-telling art form that is elegant, beautiful and inspiring. Dr. White’s setting is incredibly faithful to the book, so it is certain to satisfy anyone who has loved the work of Willa Cather.”

“O Pioneers!” is presented with generous support from the James C. and Rhonda Seacrest Tour Nebraska Opera Fund with additional support from the Glenn Korff School of Music, the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, Lied Center for Performing Arts, NU Friends of Opera and the Ariel Bybee Visiting Professorship Endowed Fund.

Tickets for the Nov. 12 performance are $18-40 and are available from the Lied Center Box Office at (402) 472-4747 or online. Discounted tickets are available for students and seniors.

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