In the opening scene of Snowy Day, a new opera based on a popular children’s book from 1962, a black mother sings an aria while her little son Peter prepares to go out alone to explore the snow.
“Oh, how my mother’s eyes look at this world,” she says.
The moment conveys the anxiety that every parent experiences when sending a child into the unfamiliar. But nowadays, this scene takes on a more painful specificity, talking about the fear and trauma that many black families in particular have experienced.
“This is a black boy in a red hooded sweatshirt who walks alone in the snow,” said Joel Thompson, composer of the piece, which will premiere Thursday at the Houston Grand Opera. “This is Tamir Rice; this is Treyvon Martin. And we wanted to focus on Peter’s humanity and his childhood surprise. ”
Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day has long been a favorite, noted as one of the first popular children’s books to feature a black protagonist. It is the most popular book in the history of the New York Public Library.
This adaptation aims to help change the perception of 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 realize that opera is for everyone,” said Andrea Davis Pinckney, children’s book author and libretto. “We are aware of 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 grocery store near Carnegie Hall, Thompson and Pinckney have worked to recreate the charming book and detailed depiction of the race.
The opera, like the book, tells the story of Peter, who one day wakes up and sees the world outside the window, covered with a fresh blanket of snow. He ventures into the cold, molds snow angels, watches a snowball fight, meets a friend and rolls down the 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, Peter’s Latin girlfriend, who teaches him some words in Spanish.
The creators wanted the work to feature a black family that was happy and intact, to counter the stereotypes in the popular culture of dysfunction and despair in black communities. They added a father, who appears in Keats’s later books but not in Day of Snow, to avoid any suggestion that Peter was raised by a single mother. They rewrote the libretto several times, preferring to describe Peter as a “handsome boy” rather than directly mentioning his race. (In an early draft, he was described as “the brown sugar boy.”)
“It’s about a loving family that turns out to be a family of color,” said Pinckney. “This is the universal nature of Snow Day.”
Thompson has a long history of interest in music’s relationship to social issues. He is best known for his “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” which premiered in 2015. This choral piece sets to music the final words of seven blacks killed in clashes with the police.
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Snowy Day was a challenge of a different kind, giving Thompson the opportunity to focus on a world of wonder and whim. But he also sees parallels with his previous work.
“He has the same mission – to focus Black humanity and the complex interior of Blackness in America,” he said. “I had to let go of all the lenses of fear that I kind of put on my eyes, just being a black person in this world, and really look at the world through Peter’s eyes.”
He decided to base the score on a four-note motif that appears throughout the entire opera, which lasts about an hour. Some passages resemble hymns; others, like snowballs, take a daring and daring turn.
Since there are no dialogues in the book, most of the libretto is invented. When Peter sees snow outside the window at the beginning of the opera, he sings:
Morning promise, get up.
with its splendor
on sidewalks and streets.
Omer Ben Seadia, the production director, said she hopes the work will resonate with people, even if they have never read Snow Day or seen an opera before.
“A lot of people are coming here for the first time,” she said. “Our goal is to make the opera as magical as possible.”
She added: “If you don’t know the book; if you, like me, did not grow up in the 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 represent black and Hispanic artists, especially women, who have historically been grossly underrepresented in classical music. The idea to adapt the book originally came from soprano Julia Bullock, who was supposed to play Peter, but dropped it due to travel restrictions related to the pandemic, which also led to the cancellation of its planned premiere last year.
Peter is now played by Raven McMillon, and the cast also includes soprano Karen Slack as Mom, bass-baritone Nicholas Newton (Dad) and soprano Elena Villalon (Amy). Patrick Summers, artistic and musical director of the Houston Grand Opera, conducts.
Efforts to bring more variety to opera have become more pressing in recent years as companies across the country see declining attendance and an aging subscriber base.
Several institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera, have found success with productions such as Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard, which debuted at the Met this fall, the first work by a black composer in the company’s 138-year history. (Following the success of Fire, the company announced on Tuesday that it would stage Blanchard’s The Champion next season.)
Hori Dastour, who will take over as CEO and CEO of the Houston Grand Opera next month, said presenting works that reflect a wide range of experiences and perspectives is essential for the future.
“Our mission is focused on promoting opera as an art form and creating the diverse audience of tomorrow,” Dastur said.
The actors stated that they enjoy participating in work that defies stereotypes.
“People can see themselves in it,” McMillon said. “It’s important for black people to not always watch something full of trauma in order to see themselves on stage.”
Thompson said he was inspired by Peter’s ability to see the world through a lens of wonder, not fear.
“Fear and surprise are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “If I can stop for a moment, breathe, and choose to look with wonder rather than fear, it will heal me.”