The Children's Classic The Snowy Day Inspires a Special Premiere at Houston Grand Opera

Composer Joel Thompson at a workshop session for The Snowy Day.
Composer Joel Thompson at a workshop session for The Snowy Day. Photo by Matthew Fried
Emmy award-winning composer Joel Thompson had never done an opera before but when Houston Grand Opera's Patrick Summers approached him with the seed of an idea to build on the classic children's book The Snowy Day, he was both "humbled" and ready to go.

"All of a sudden, opera made sense as a possible genre for me," says Thompson who up till now has been best known for his orchestral and choral work. His compositions such as "The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed" often deal with heavier themes. The proposal from HGO represented a chance to do something different.

Taken from the Caldecott award-winning book of the same title by Ezra Jack Keats, the opera version of The Snowy Day will premiere at HGO on December 9. What made the book groundbreaking when it was published in 1962 was that the main character Peter was a young Black boy. It was the first picture book with an African American main character to win a major children's award.

Thompson and librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney worked on building the score and story from what is, admittedly, a pretty short book about a young boy's experiences with snow. Both had somewhat different takes on what message it was conveying, he says, but that did not stop them from working in a "very free and collaborative process."

"Because of its simplicity, people are able to superimpose their own imaginations and their own lenses onto the book," Thompson says.

The composer, who is now pursuing his Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Yale University, grew up in the Bahamas — although he spent three years in Houston starting when he was 10 years old — and now considers Atlanta his home base. As a child he had a copy of The Snowy Day in English and Spanish. Although he didn't experience his first real snowfall until November 2018. "I got to tap into that sense of wonder that I think Peter is experiencing when he is seeing snow for the first time."

Describing the lasting appeal of the book, Thompson says, "I think it taps into this intangible sense of wonder that we tend to lose as we grow older and it's all over the book. The art collage techniques. the colorful way that Jack Keats depicts snow so it's not just the realistic white we see up here in New England but we see purple and blue and all these other colors in the snow.

"I feel that opera as a genre does lend itself to big emotion. A lot of times that emotions tends to be on the negative side of the spectrum: grief and tragedy. But I think one of the things that makes this story last, even though it's very simple, even though to some adult eyes it seems that nothing happens, some of the  most seismic moments in this narrative are when he's making a snow angel in the snow or his snowball that he collects after this long day in the snow melts and it's the biggest tragedy. He has a nightmare and imagines that all the snow is melting and even himself but then he wakes up to a new day. In the eyes of a child those are huge events. So I feel like the opera lends itself to that big emotion," Thompson says..

"I also think there's something about singing on stage; there’s a suspension of disbelief that has to happen there's a yielding to one's imagination that has to happen that lends itself to engage with the art form and I. I think it provides into a gateway into the mind of a child. If we take that first step, it's even easier to slip into Peter's mind, to slip into the mind of a young, 7-year-old Black boy seeing snow for the first time."

click to enlarge Thompson at the workshop with librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney. - PHOTO BY MATTHEW FRIED
Thompson at the workshop with librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney.
Photo by Matthew Fried
The challenge for him as composer, Thompson says, was "trying to create something that was still fitting for the opera stage, that was dramatic, that has a narrative trajectory that's still entertaining to engage with for an hour, but also everyone else is able to bring their own view of the book to it. It was a challenge but I hope we got close to the spirit of the original.

"A lot of my music prior to this project was looking at the world through a lens of fear and grief and trying to explore that part of my humanity so it was a welcome change to look at the world through the eyes of wonder, through the eyes of a child. It was healing, the process actually."

Thompson grew up in a house where some form of music was going on all the time. "There was never a silent moment in my house," he says, laughing. In undergrad he pursued degrees in both music and pre-med "and I kept that up as long as I could." From there he turned to conducting, then arranging the music in hymns and then eventually started writing his own pieces. It became a way for me to really express myself."

He believes audiences of all types should be open to this piece.

"I think that one thing Andrea and I really wanted to emphasize is that this story is for everyone. There’s a lot of baggage with opera associated with the genre of opera when it comes to race, when it comes to class, when it comes to gender. This story written by the son of Jewish immigrants about a Black boy in a very diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn,  I think it’s very American. It captures the beauty and the diversity of this country. But it’s also a very intimate and personal story.

"I think it's a perfect story for now because after these dark years of COVID and isolation and the sort of racial reckoning and the distress that's happening at the seams of our society, there’s a piece of art that can remind us to hold on to each other and remember that life is precious, that the simple things are sometimes the most precious. And because it's so precious we should share that with other people.

"The very last image in the book is Peter holding hands with his friend in between these giant snow banks. For me the big takeaway from the book was: he experienced all the snow all by himself. Then he lost the snowball and he thought that all the snow would be lost. But when he saw the snow was there again, the first thing he did was run across the hall to his friend and  say let’s experience this together. After COVID, after feeling like the world is coming to an end, I'm hoping we can look at each other across the aisle and hold hands and walk into the snow and experience it all together. I feel like that's my goal at least for this project."

Performances of The Snowy Day are scheduled for December 9-19 at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursdays through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue.  Masks covering nose and mouth are required.  For more information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $30-$107.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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