When it comes to world premieres, few in Houston can match the depth and breadth of the Houston Grand Opera. Their latest opera, The Snowy Day, opened December 9 and runs through December 19. With music by Joel Thompson and a libretto with Andrea Davis Pinkney, the opera is based on the 1962 children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats. It's the story of a little boy named Peter who heads out into the snow to explore the city around him, the book was notable for featuring an African-American character in a prominent role.
While children of color had appeared in children's books prior to Keats’ classic, they were often stereotypical portrayals, as in 1899’s Little Black Sambo or in supporting roles, as with the 1950s’ The Swimming Hole. Keats wasn’t attempting to revolutionize children’s literature, but he did see that books should be a place where all children can see themselves. The Snowy Day would go on to win the Caldecott Medal in 1963 and be beloved by generations of readers. Its main character, Peter, would star in several more Keats books.
The Snowy Day has now become the first HGO mainstage commissioned by a Black composer and librettist team. It's the latest of the 71 new productions, including Cruzar La Cara de la Luna/To Cross the Face of the Moon (2010), the first mariachi opera; Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers (2008) and John Adams’ Nixon in China (1987), that the HGO has launched in it's more than 66 years.
“The Snowy Day was originally set to premiere in the 2020-21 season, but then the world halted to a stop during the pandemic,” the opera’s director, Omer Ben Seadia tells Houstonia. “It was a heartbreaking decision to cancel, but we wanted to give The Snowy Day the premiere it deserved.”
Making the decision to cancel the show did allow for a whole additional year of planning and workshops that allowed the creative team to flesh out aspects of the show. They did everything from experiments with vocal parts and orchestrations to evaluating and reevaluating the storyline. The team also released a documentary about the new work, The Making of The Snowy Day: An Opera for All.
Seadia has been attached to the project from its beginnings. The Israeli-born director has made a name for herself helming operas around the globe, among them Tosca in Hawaii, Carmen in Cincinnati and Elektra in Canada.
“There is something truly thrilling about directing a world premiere,” she says. “The ability to create something from scratch, to imagine it, explore it and then express it on stage straight out of your imagination!”
That feeling of tapping into imagination is one that soprano Raven McMillon also finds intriguing. She’s singing the role of Peter in the production. A member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, McMillion sang in several of HGO’s digital productions last year and is looking forward to being on stage in this world premiere.
“It has been so fun to play a character like Peter,” she says. “it feels like I just get to play when I’m on stage!”
It might seem odd to have a woman playing a male role. However, in opera, it’s not unusual for women to sing what is called a “trouser role,” where a performer sings the part of the opposite sex. Choosing to have an adult sing the role of a child was another deliberate choice.
Seadia explains that the adult, child switch helps a performer “have access to the more complex and nuanced emotions explored in the show.”
While The Snowy Day is based on a story for children, the opera, and the book, look at moments of levity and introspection. Peter’s explorations through the city allow him to confront his own abilities, as well as his thoughts about the world around him.
“In his alone moments, we get to see that there is a profoundness to his thoughts and emotions, while in other scenes with his parents or his friends, Peter is a bubbly and energetic child,” McMillon says about the arc her character travels.
The opera is billed as family-friendly, and it's likely that families – whether they are familiar with opera or not – will find the story to be approachable and engaging. Sung in English, with English projected text, it brings a new dimension to a familiar story. It also offers themes – family, exploration – that are universal.
Seadia feels the show is just plain fun for audiences.
“This show is like going on a great adventure, running out into the snow and playing in a giant playground!” she says. “The music and the text will move you profoundly and the production will delight you and make you smile from ear to ear.”
The Snowy Day, Houston Grand Opera, 51 Preston Street; performances Dec. 14-19, call 713-228-6737 or check their website for more information.