‘Don Henry’ opera, podcast connects KU past and present
A letter from KU student Don Henry, who died in the Spanish Civil War, inspired the plot and lyrics of an innovative opera by alumnus Frank Nawrot.
When word reached Mount Oread, in October 1937, that “flaxen-haired Don Henry” had been killed in the Spanish Civil War, the sad news of the sophomore’s death touched off a political firestorm that lasted months.
Legislators, University administrators and Henry’s own father wanted to know how a patriotic Boy Scout from Dodge City, a pious Methodist who’d pondered a church career, could become so radicalized that he’d join communist, socialist and anarchist forces fighting to defend the Spanish government against Nationalists backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Though hundreds of Americans, alarmed by the rise of Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco, were fighting in Spain (many in the English-speaking Abraham Lincoln Brigade in which Henry served), some Kansans suspected there was only one explanation for the All-American boy’s revolutionary turn: brainwashing by communists at KU.
Inquiries by Chancellor Ernest Lindley, the Kansas Board of Regents and conservative Kansas legislators stoked a red scare largely met with “eye-rolling exasperation” on campus, according to an article on kuhistory.com. Reactions ranged from lighthearted pranks (Greek students schemed about donning red shirts and greeting each other as “comrade,” and a professor arrived in his classroom to find farcical “plans” for bombing Strong Hall scrawled on his chalkboard) to earnest editorials invoking the Salem witch trials. Emporia Gazette Editor William Allen White, 1890, in a University Daily Kansan commentary, dismissed the uproar as “a lot of whoop-te-doo and no evidence … gossip and tall tales multiplied by ten under the tongues of super-patriots.” Not until the following spring, when a bill demanding $7,500 to root out radicalism at KU failed in the Senate after passing the House, did the issue fade.
Yet it resonates still, according to Frank Nawrot, DMA’19, assistant professor of music theory at Wichita State University, who retells fallen student Don Henry’s tragic tale in an inventive chamber opera that blends elements of rock, pop and metal music with cable news tropes.
“His story felt very similar to ours,” Nawrot says of his rationale for updating a nearly century-old story for a modern audience. “There was a study done that showed in the midterm elections of 2018, there were more white nationalists running for office in the U.S. than at any other time in our history. What made me want to tell his story was the fact that he was fighting a very similar thing overseas. The things that inspired him were the same things that were inspiring people to get out and take a stand against the white nationalists running for office in the U.S. I found those parallels really interesting.”
Nawrot wrote the one-act opera, which runs about 70 minutes, as his doctoral dissertation in the School of Music. The lyrics draw on primary source documents, including a press release summarizing the Board of Regents investigation and a letter Henry sent his family from Spain, as well as war poems written by soldiers who served in the conflict. Shakespeare sonnets and Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton’s autobiography also inspired lyrics.
One of the most inventive touches is a fictional cable news program, “The Megan O’Reilly Show,” that introduces each act. The host scoffs at students’ naivete while interviewing a guest whose responses are quotes from the Regents’ release. The show’s disdain for students’ idealism, suspicion of faculty “indoctrination” and communist influence on campus, and warnings about radical socialism reflect the times—Henry’s and ours.
“The reason I put the fake 24-hour news show in was because that’s something I’ve lived with my whole life,” Nawrot says. “I grew up hearing my parents and other family members watch Fox News and CNN and MSNBC and all that stuff. You see it in hospital lobbies and everywhere. It’s really an important part of American culture, and I wanted to use it as a kind of funny but also surreal way to connect the two eras.”
In August, Nawrot released a recording of “Don Henry” as a four-part podcast. Neal Long, g’18, DMA’21, sings the role of Henry, and Gretchen Pille, g’18, sings dual roles as Henry’s mother and Salaria, a nurse serving at the front. Rachael Rule plays Megan O’Reilly, while Nawrot appears as her talk show guest, Duke Prospero.
The instrumentation Nawrot employs—orchestral strings and woodwinds mixed with guitar, bass, drums and keyboards—illustrates his approach to making music: Play what you like and hope others like it too.
“More and more I just write the music I want to hear, which means very much drawing on the music that I like,” says Nawrot, who grew up on hip-hop, rock and metal rather than classical music. “I’ve listened to many more hours of Prince than Mozart.”
Technically “Don Henry” is more of a concept album at this point, Nawrot says. It won’t really be an opera until it gets staged. Someday.
“A hundred years ago to call something an opera that had talking in it would have been scoffed at by many,” he says, noting that there are various terms for large-scale staged works that include dialogue.
“Nowadays we typically call them musicals,” Nawrot adds. “I don’t really care what people call this, as long as they listen to it.”
Listen to “Don Henry” on Frank Nawrot’s website or on your favorite podcast platform.
Steven Hill is associate editor of Kansas Alumni magazine.