What if you were to take an Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book – one beloved for the past six decades, with the distinction of being the book title that has been checked out of the New York Public Library more than any other in the library’s history – and transform it into an opera? The book, Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day” was the source of such an operatic adaptation, commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera.
Although Keats’ “The Snowy Day” is a story about a boy’s first experiences in snow, the book’s characters are sympathetic representations of black children and adults, who were conspicuously absent from most children’s literature up until its 1963 publication.
The opera’s world premere was originally to take place at the Houston Grand Opera in late 2020. Like other operatic projects throughout the world, the Covid-19 pandemic required a year’s postponement of the world premiere. Once the world premiere was rescheduled, the decision was made to stream the performance and make it available without charge to the world audience.
Keats’ sparsely worded book is intended as a bedtime story. To adapt it to an hour long opera, the Houston Grand Opera, in cooperation with the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, secured the services of children’s author Andrea Davis Pinkney as librettist. Her collaboration with compoer Joel Thompson proved felicitous. The book only briefly references a child experiencing the snow, his mother, some boys throwing snowballs and an unidentified friend. Pinkney’s libretto and Thompson’s music fleshed out vivid portraits of the boy Peter’s family and of the kids in his neighborhood. In their adaptation, they created an affecting portrait of a racially-mixed neighborhood.
Raven McMillon’s Peter
Performing the role of the young boy Peter was Maryland soprano Raven McMillon. Dressed in the iconic hooded red snowsuit illustrated in the book, McMillon was convincing and affecting as a child experiencing snow for the first time.
[Below: Raven McMillon as Peter; edited image of a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
McMillon, in her second year as an HGO Studio Artist, brought a bright-sounding, youthful voice to the role.
Karen Slack’s Mama and Nicholas Newton’s Daddy and Tim
Soprano Karen Black was dramatically persuasive and vocally outstanding in the role of Peter’s Mama. Slack’s expressive voice of power was enlisted for a heartfelt performance of Mama’s soliloquy, sung in Peter’s bedroom after he left for his venture alone in the snow.
Of the cast members, Slack was the best known to me. My first Karen Slack performances were during her San Francisco Adler Fellowship years early this century. I subsequently praised her performances of France’s Agnes Sorel [Review: Zajick is Victor in “Maid of Orleans” – San Francisco Opera, June 18, 2006] and of Serena [Review: Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell Lead Powerful “Porgy and Bess” at San Francisco Opera, June 21, 2009].
[Below: Karen Slack (left) as Mama and Nicholas Newton (right) as Daddy; edited image of a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
California bass-baritone Nicholas Newton, possessing the cast’s lowest voice, brought vocal authority to the role of Peter’s Daddy. In a cast most of whose members doubled assignments, he also performed the role of the boy, Tim, in an endearing performance.
Elena Villalón’s Amy, Andreas Acosta’s Jasper and Papi and Cory McGee’s Billy
Cuban-American soprano Elena Villalón, an HGO studio artist, sang the role of Amy, a girl who befriends Peter, in a convincing, beautifully sung, portrayal. “Try being a girl in a world of boys” she complains to Peter, as she builds a snowman for his amusement and shares her sled with him for a downhill ride. She and Peter do snow angels during an appealing orchestral interlude.
Villalón’s character, who does not appear in the book, is one of the charming additions to the opera.
[Below: Amy (Elena Villalón) stands next to the snowman she built; edited image of a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Cuban-American tenor Andres Acosta portrayed the role of Jasper. Virginia bass Cory McGee, also an HGO Studio Artist, sang the roles of the boy Billy and of Amy’s father Papi.
[Below: the boys Billy (Cory McGee, left), Jasper (Andreas Acosta, center) and Tim (Nicholas Newton, right) get aggressive with snowballs; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera. ]
Maestro Patrick Summers and the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra
Houston Grand Opera’s musical director, Maestro Patrick Summers, an early advocate for “The Snowy Day” operatic commission, conducted a downsized HGO Orchestra in an affectionate reading of the piece.
[Below: Maestro Patrick Summers; edited image of a publicity photograph.]
Composer Joel Thompson and Librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney
Joel Thompson’s chorale “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” is a powerful work of social protest, demonstrating Thompson’s compositional skill in vocal music. For the gentler themes of “The Snowy Day” Thompson created an orchestral palette that is both melodic and evocative of such winter phenomena as dripping icewater and descending snowflakes.
[Below: Composer Joel Thompson (right) and librettists Andrea Davis Pinkney (left) participate in a Houston Grand Opera workshop, preparing “The Snowy Day”; edited image of a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Pinkney’s children’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, include age-appropriate biographical works on black community leaders and on the social protests that resulted in the landmark civil rights acts of the 1960s. For the opera, she successfully created a libretto that maintained the charm and innocence of Keats’ story, augmenting it with an inspirational characterization of Peter and his family residing in a mixed neighborhood.
Director Omer Ben Seadia Staging and Designers Amy Rubin (Sets) and Jessica Jahn (Costumes
The production was staged by Israeli director Omer Ben Seadia, who assured a cheerful, fast-paced operatic experience.
Ben Seadia’s scenes moved seamlessly between Peter getting dressed with his parents’ help, to kids at play under the (distant) supervision of parents, to Peter’s return indoors.
[Below: Director Omer Ben Seadia; edited image of a publicity photograph for omerbenseadia.com.]
The scenic designs, which were informed by the book’s original illustrations, were the creation of theater desisgner Amy Rubin.
[Below: set designer Amy Rubin; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Rubin’s sets captured the spirit of Peter’s bedroom and the outside snowbanks. They rotated as the action moved from inside and outside of Peter’s bedroom.
[Below: Peter (Raven McMillon) is back in his bedroom after his adventures in the snow; edited image of a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The après-snow scenes included a bubble-bath, which Peter enjoys after his exhausting day of downhill sledding, snowball throwing and making snow angels.
[Below: Peter (Raven McMillon) takes a bubble bath; edited image of a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The opera’s bright costumes, created by Washington State designer Jessica Jahn, reflect the book’s illustrations. During the outdoor snow scenes Jahn’s costumes provide bright contrasts to the wintry whites and grays.
[Below: Peter (Raven McMillon, left) finds himself in proximity to the snowball fight between Billy (Cory McGee, center) and Jasper (Andres Acosta, right); edited image of a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
[Below: Costume designer Jessica Jahn; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Over the past decade I have reviewed ten opera performances whose costumes were created by Jahn, including new productions for the Glimmerglass Festival [American Premiere Review: A Musically Appealing, Theatrically Arresting “Siege of Calais” Links Donizetti and Zambello – July 16, 2017], Houston Grand Opera [Review: Francesca Zambello’s Spirited Mounting of Bernstein’s “West Side Story” – Houston Grand Opera, April 28, 2018] and the San Francisco Opera [Review: Sondra Radvanovsky’s Stunning Season Opening “Norma” – San Francisco Opera, September 5, 2014 and Review: Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, An Excellent Cast for Matthew Ozawa’s Powerful Production – San Francisco Opera, October 17, 2021.]
I recommend the Houston Grand Opera world premiere production of Thompson’s and Pinkney’s “The Snowy Day” to all audiences of all ages, whether veteran opera goers or persons new to opera; and consider it to be a child-friendly opera, especially appropriate for the winter holiday season.
For more information on the HGO Digital series of streamed performances, including “The Snowy Day”, see www.houstongrandopera.org.