Houston Grand Opera’s The Snowy Day is a visual and musical delight

United StatesUnited States Joel Thompson, The Snowy Day: Soloists, Houston Grand Opera Orchestra / Patrick Summers (conductor). Houston Grand Opera, Houston, TX, 9.12.2021. (RP)

Raven McMillon (Peter) © Lynn Lane Photography

Librettist – Andrea Davis Pinkney
Director – Omer Ben Seadia
Sets – Amy Rubin
Costumes – Jessica Jahn
Lighting – Michael James Clark
Choreographer – Courtney D. Jones
Dramaturg – Jeremy Johnson

Peter – Raven McMillon
Amy/Ensemble – Elena Villalón
Mama/Ensemble – Karen Slack
Daddy/Tim/Ensemble – Nicholas Newton
Papi/Jasper/Ensemble – Andres Acosta
Billy/Ensemble – Cory McGee

I woke up to snow on Christmas Eve – it was just the morning to watch Joel Thompson’s The Snowy Day, which premiered at the Houston Grand Opera on 9 December. In her opening remarks, Khori Dastoor, HGO’s General Director, said that through the magic of opera it could snow in Houston on a 78°F day. I had the real thing and, just as for Peter, the boy at the center of Ezra Jack Keats’s book upon which Thompson and librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney based their opera, for me the sight of snow was magical.

Apart from recalling the US postage stamps with illustrations of a child dressed all in red frolicking in the snow, I knew nothing of Keats or The Snowy Day, but it is a popular read: in January 2020, The Snowy Day was declared the most checked-out book in the 125-year history of the New York Public Library. The film version – Amazon’s original holiday special, The Snowy Day – won two Emmys, two Kidscreen Awards and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts nomination.

Born to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents, Keats grew up poor in Brooklyn during the Depression. His artistic bent was evident from an early age, but his father discouraged the boy’s dream of being an artist. Shortly before Keats was to receive an award for artistic excellence at his high school graduation, his father died of a heart attack. In his wallet were clippings of the awards that his son had won.

Keats worked as a mural painter and comic book illustrator until he was drafted into the army during World War II. His wartime job was designing camouflage paintings for the US Army Air Forces. Upon his return to civilian life, he changed his name from Katz to Keats to escape the overt antisemitism of the time. After studying in Paris, he realized his ambition of becoming an artist with no intention of creating children’s books.

But prompted to do so, Keats’ first effort was in 1960, My Dog Is Lost, co-authored with Pat Cherr. Two years later, The Snowy Day was published and received the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished picture book for children in 1963. Although race is never mentioned in the book, it features a Black American child in an average family and is devoid of all stereotypes. That was enough to make it controversial at the time.

Karen Slack (Mama) & Nicholas Newton (Daddy) © Lynn Lane Photograph

There is no plot to The Snowy Day, which is a celebration of family, childhood and winter. Peter does nothing but go outside to explore the city, throw a few snowballs and ride a sleigh with a newfound friend. In both the book and movie, Keats’s signature artwork with its bold colors and simple designs gives The Snowy Day a fresh, bright feel.

The set design for the opera is simple too – white sheets serve as piles of snow and paper snowballs burst upon contact. The costumes are colorful and chic, and the sweaters for the three older boys that Peter encounters are particularly fine. After spending the day playing, Peter takes a bath in a pink tub with blue balls as bubbles, while he and his mother engage in a scat singing duet.

With the first notes of the brief prelude, Thompson immediately casts a spell of expectation and wonder. Percussion and piano pepper the score. The music for the snow fight when Peter meets up with three older boys evokes the rumble in West Side Story, and a jaunty interlude with spiky melodies in the flutes hearkens back to TV theme songs from the 1960s. There is an orchestral suite to be extracted from the score, and Patrick Summers and the ensemble of players from the HGO orchestra made the music zing.

Omer Ben Seadia’s concept for The Snowy Day captures the innocence and optimism of a family-friendly sitcom of the 1950s – the opera is only a step away from Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best. There is a twist, however, as the little girl whom Peter befriends is a Latina, as are other characters. Andrea Davis Pinkney’s libretto is a mix of English and Spanish that one never encountered on television when Keats wrote the book.

The sumptuous-voiced soprano Karen Slack as Peter’s mother and Nicholas Newton’s warm bass-baritone capture that sunny optimism. Slack pours hot chocolate out of a thermos as if she were serving tea to the Queen of England, while Newton’s Daddy is definitely of the father-knows-best school of parenting.

As Peter, Raven McMillon’s soprano soars true, but it is her facial expressions and movements that create an unforgettable Peter. Watching McMillon bounce around the stage playing in the snow is a pure delight. Soprano Elena Villalón is Amy, the girl who befriends Peter. Together, they ride a sled and build a snow woman. There is warmth and laughter in Villalón’s voice which contrasts perfectly with the more ethereal sound of McMillon’s singing.

Tenor Andreas Acosta and bass Cory McGee round out the cast in multiple rolls, mostly providing the high jinks of older boys taunting younger kids and pompously laying claim to all the snow. Acosta, as Amy’s father, joins Newton in a moving duet in Spanish and English, as they call for their children to come home after their wonderful day of adventure and fun.

As a boy, my younger brother and I spent every moment we could playing in the snow and skating on frozen ponds with our friends. Joel Thompson and Andrea Davis Pinkney capture that joy in words and music, and Houston Grand Opera’s production gives it a bite that would undoubtedly have pleased Ezra Jack Keats.

Rick Perdian

The Snowy Day is available for streaming on HGO Digital TV through 8.1.2022.

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