In Dennis Arrowsmith’s new children’s book, The Armadillo’s Dream, the main character is a hopeless, irrational optimist. Never mind that Sandy calls the smelly shores of Buffalo Bayou home, or that if you run the numbers, his armadillo life will most likely be cut short by the undercarriage of an F-150. No, against all odds, he is always smiling with an earnest glimmer in his eye, confident that with the right combination of mentorship and determination, he’ll land his dream gig: to sing onstage with the Houston Grand Opera.
The problem? Armadillos mostly emit pig-like squeals, not lilting arias.
Arrowsmith, HGO’s touring programs manager, explains that his book, commissioned by the opera and out this month, is a riff on a Bolivian folk tale in which a ’dillo wanders the rainforest on a similar quest for a voice. That the original centered on the same animal felt like a sign, given its proliferation in Texas. It was on one of Arrowsmith’s bike rides along the bayou, following the trails toward the Wortham Center past some of the city’s most iconic landmarks, that he realized he’d found the perfect backdrop for his story.
Readers meet Sandy as he traipses up and down Buffalo Bayou. Along the way, at spots like the Gus Wortham Fountain and Allen’s Landing, he encounters chirping crickets, ribbiting bullfrogs, and tweeting canaries. Sandy explains that he’s “longing to sing” like they do—that he must learn their secrets. All reply with the same dismissal: “Don’t be ridiculous, you silly thing. Just look at yourself. You’ll never sing.” But their discouraging words fail to sink in to Sandy’s thick, bonelike skin as he marches onward, ever smiling.
Suddenly a magical storm descends, transforming Sandy into a shell and depositing him outside the Wortham stage door. A crew member happens upon the object and drafts it for a performance of The Pearl Fishers, a Bizet opera that calls for the hero to sound a conch-like shell instrument. He blows into the shell, and Sandy’s dream comes true—he’s singing! The Wortham audience goes wild.
A singer himself, Arrowsmith thinks Sandy’s story is relatable. “Of all the music we can make, singing is so personal in that it’s tied in with your identity—no one’s voice sounds like you,” he says. “It’s really akin to finding your own voice and being able to express yourself on your level.”
That’s the message he’ll take on the road this winter as part of HGO’s Storybook Opera program, which is geared toward children from pre-K to second grade. “There’s something so exciting about sharing opera for the first time,” he says. “These programs are so wonderful, like good Disney films, in that they are really great for kids, but adults really love them, too.”
The idea of a storm coming along and changing one’s life isn’t lost on the author, especially considering that he embarked on the project just as Harvey flooded the Wortham. After the company faced so many daunting challenges leading up to this season, Sandy emerged as a role model for everyone—not just the kids.
“The animals say over and over again that there’s no way he’ll sing,” Arrowsmith says. “It ends up being a story of persistence and resilience, and we can’t have enough of those stories, can we?”