Though snow days in Houston are few and far between, the magic of a front yard or a beloved park blanketed in white frost is not lost on us in the least. Memories of past snowfalls sweep through our minds with every temperature drop, and as we activate our heaters and open our windows, it’s tough to keep the winter wishes at bay.
In The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats illustrates that same wide-eyed wonderment through the eyes of a child named Peter as he traverses through the streets of New York City on the hunt for excitement and adventure. Published in 1962, Keats’s Caldecott Medal-winning story was the first mainstream children’s book to feature a Black protagonist, sparking widespread popularity and acclaim.
This week, Houston Grand Opera will release The Making of The Snowy Day: An Opera for All in place of its previously scheduled performances of the opera based on Keats’s groundbreaking book. The new, free documentary, created by award-winning San Francisco filmmaker Annalise Ophelian, will give audiences a sneak peek at the production, which, owing to the coronavirus pandemic, has now been pushed to HGO’s 2021-2022 season.
Composed by Joel Thompson, who lived in Houston for a few years as a child, with a libretto by Andrea Davis Pinkney, the opera follows Peter through his personal snowy adventure, expanding his world and spontaneous imagination onto the stage.
“This work feels especially significant in 2020, as work that centers on Black joy rather than pain, as work that elevates Black creators, and as work that celebrates the power of connection at a time when we’ve all been forced apart,” Ophelian tells Houstonia.
After making the difficult decision to cancel their upcoming shows—slated to be the production’s world premiere, no less—the team at HGO knew they still wanted to showcase The Snowy Day without necessarily premiering it.
“Since this opera has such a heartfelt and important story, we knew that a documentary-style project would be a great fit to give context to this story and highlight our amazing creative team,” explains Patrick Summers, the artistic and music director for HGO. “Omer Ben Seadia, the director for The Snowy Day, recommended Annalise and after meeting with her, we knew she was the best person to tell this story.”
It just so happens the documentarian has her own fond memories of the children’s book, making her the perfect fit for the opera’s project.
“Ezra Jack Keats’s book is a sense memory for me,'' she says. “When I first got the inquiry from Houston Grand Opera, I could immediately conjure Peter’s red snowsuit, and the gorgeous mid-century collage work, and shapes and colors that I grew up with.”
As with practically every creative endeavor attempted this year, there were complications in producing an entire documentary remotely and safely. In fact, Ophelian’s entire documentary-making process faced much of the same challenges HGO’s creative team has been facing, she tells us.
Limited in time and access, Ophelian sent out kits of equipment to interviewees and conducted much of her work via video calls.
“How do you create entirely via remote? We had limited time in which to capture the story, but also limited access. Film is a visual medium, and from the start, I had no way to get a camera in a room with people.”
But, like every artist during this trying period, they made it work. The final result showcases the heart and soul of Peter’s story, as well as the trials the creative team has encountered in bringing it to the Wortham stage. And because of those unique challenges the documentary team faced, there’re also some pretty fun stories to accompany The Making of The Snowy Day: An Opera for All.
“Composer Joel Thompson ended up recording the music we use as score from quarantine in his Houston hotel room,” Ophelian shares, “using the AV kit he had available to him and some truly MacGyver-quality work-arounds that at one point involved using a serving fork as a boom arm.”
Dec 10, 2020–Jan 9, 2021. Free. Online. More info and streaming at houstongrandopera.org.