‘The Snowy Day,’ a Children’s Classic, Becomes an Opera

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.

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

The moment conveys the anxiety that every parent feels 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.

“The Snowy Day” (with McMillon, left, and Karen Slack as Peter’s mother) shows a Black family that is happy and intact, to counter stereotypes of dysfunction and despair in Black communities.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

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 recreate 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.

McMillon, left, with Andrea Davis Pinkney, the children’s book author who wrote the libretto.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times
Joel Thompson, center, the opera’s composer, conferring with Jeremy Johnson, Houston Grand Opera’s dramaturg.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

While Thompson and Pinkney tried to stay true to the spirit of Keats’s 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 has long had an interest in connecting music to social issues. He is best known for “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” which premiered in 2015. That choral piece sets to music the final words of seven Black men killed during encounters with the police.

“The Snowy Day” was a different kind of challenge, giving Thompson a chance to focus on a world of wonder and whimsy. But he also sees parallels to his previous work.

The creators added a father (played by Nicholas Newton), 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.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

“It has the same mission of centering Black humanity and the complex interiority of Blackness in America,” he said. “I had to let go of all of the lenses of fear that I had sort of put over my eyes as just being a Black man in this world, and really look at the world through Peter’s eyes.”

He 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:

Omer Ben Seadia, the 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 the 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 the soprano Karen Slack as Mama, the bass-baritone Nicholas Newton (Daddy) and the soprano Elena Villalón (Amy). Patrick Summers, Houston Grand Opera’s artistic and music director, conducts.

The effort to bring more diversity to opera has grown increasingly urgent in recent years as companies across the country have seen declining attendance and an aging subscriber base.

Omer Ben Seadia, the production’s director, gives notes to the cast.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times
Kevin Miller, an assistant conductor on the production, leads an ensemble backstage.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

Some institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera, have found success with productions like Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” 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 said on Tuesday it would stage Blanchard’s earlier opera, “Champion,” next season.)

Khori Dastoor, who starts next month as Houston Grand Opera’s general director and chief executive, said that 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.

Members of the cast said they were pleased to be part of a work that is challenging stereotypes.

“It’s important for Black people to not always have to watch something that is filled with trauma in order to see themselves onstage,” McMillon said. Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

“People can see themselves in it,” McMillon said. “It’s important for Black people to not always have to watch something that is filled with trauma in order to see themselves onstage.”

Thompson said he has been inspired by Peter’s ability to see the world through a prism of wonder rather than fear.

“Fear and wonder are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “If I can stop for a moment and breathe and choose to look with wonder instead of fear, it’s healing for me.”

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