‘The Snowy Day,’ a children’s classic, becomes an opera

Nicholas Newton (left) and the soprano Raven McMillon in a rehearsal of “The Snowy Day,” in Houston, Dec. 5, 2021. Based on the popular 1962 children’s book, the show aims to celebrate Blackness and attract new audiences to the art form. (Photo: NYTimes)
In the first scene of “The Snowy Day,” a new opera based on the popular 1962 children’s book, a Black mother sings an aria as her young son, Peter, prepares to go outdoors alone to explore the snow.اضافة اعلان

“Oh, how Mama’s eyes are watching this world,” she says.

The moment conveys the anxiety that every parent feels when sending a child into the unfamiliar. But in our times, the scene takes on a more painful specificity, speaking to the fear and trauma experienced by many Black families in particular.

“He’s a Black boy in a red hoodie going out into the snow alone,” said Joel Thompson, the composer of the work, which premieres at Houston Grand Opera on Thursday. “That’s Tamir Rice; that’s Trayvon Martin. And we wanted to focus on Peter’s humanity and his childlike wonder.”

The Snowy Day,” by Ezra Jack Keats, has long been a favorite, celebrated as one of the first mainstream children’s books to prominently feature a Black protagonist. It is the most checked-out book in the history of the New York Public Library.

This adaptation aims to help change perceptions about Black identity and attract new audiences to opera at a time when the art form faces serious financial pressures and questions about its future.

“We are waking up to the idea that opera is for everyone,” said Andrea Davis Pinkney, a children’s book author who wrote the libretto. “We are waking up to the fact that, yes, this is your story, and your story, and my story, and our story.”

Since their first meeting about four years ago at a deli near Carnegie Hall, Thompson and Pinkney have been working to re-create the book’s sense of enchantment and its nuanced portrayal of race.

The opera, like the book, tells the story of Peter, who awakens one day to see the world outside his window covered in a fresh blanket of snow. He ventures into the cold, making snow angels, watching a snowball fight, meeting a friend and sliding down a hill.

While Thompson and Pinkney tried to stay true to the spirit of Keats’ work, they also took liberties. Several new characters are introduced, including Amy, a Latina friend of Peter’s who teaches him some words in Spanish.

The creators wanted the work to show a Black family that was happy and intact to counter stereotypes in popular culture of dysfunction and despair in Black communities. They added a father, who is featured in later books by Keats but not in “The Snowy Day,” to avoid any suggestion that Peter was being raised by a single mother. They reworked the libretto several times, choosing to describe Peter as a “beautiful boy” rather than to explicitly mention his race. (An early draft described him as a “brown sugar boy.”)

“It’s about a loving family who happens to be a family of color,” Pinkney said. “That is the universal nature of ‘The Snowy Day.’”

Thompson chose to ground the score in a four-note motif that appears throughout the opera, which lasts about an hour. Some passages evoke hymns; others, like the snowball fight, take a jazzy, irreverent turn.

Because there is no dialogue in the book, much of the libretto is invented. When Peter sees the snow outside his window at the start of the opera, he sings: "Morning promise, rising. Surprising me with its splendor on the sidewalks and streets."

Omer Ben Seadia, director of the production, said she hoped the work would resonate with people, even if they had never read “The Snowy Day” or seen an opera before.

“There are a lot of people who are stepping in for the first time,” she said. “Our challenge is to make the opera as magical as possible.”

She added: “If you don’t know the book; if you, like me, didn’t grow up with snow; if you’ve never seen an opera, there are so many things that make this opera so accessible and familiar.”

The production is notable for its efforts to showcase Black and Latino artists — especially women — who historically have been severely underrepresented in classical music. The idea to adapt the book originally came from soprano Julia Bullock, who was set to play the role of Peter but withdrew because of travel restrictions related to the pandemic, which also forced the cancellation of the scheduled premiere last year.

Peter is now played by Raven McMillon, and the cast also includes soprano Karen Slack as Mama, bass-baritone Nicholas Newton (Daddy) and soprano Elena Villalón (Amy).

Khori Dastoor, who starts next month as Houston Grand Opera’s general director and chief executive, said presenting works that reflect a broad range of experiences and perspectives was essential to the future.
“Our mission centers on advancing opera as an art form and building the diverse audiences of tomorrow,” Dastoor said.

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