WHILE THE HOUSTON Grand Opera has a long tradition of commissioning and staging new operas, composer Joel Thompson’s The Snowy Day, which premieres at the Wortham and via livestream Dec. 9, is something very special.
Based on the groundbreaking 1962 children’s book The Snowy Day, one of the first mainstream children’s books to feature an African American protagonist, the opera is certain to appeal to both seasoned opera fans and those new to the artform and reveals classical music’s capacity for inclusivity. “I feel really, really grateful to have sung works by Black composers,” says Baltimore-born soprano and HGO Studio artist Raven McMillon, who sings the role of Peter in The Snowy Day. “Especially this one, which is so visible.”
Written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, a Jewish man born to immigrant parents, the book tells the story of Peter, a young boy who upon waking up one morning to find his neighborhood is covered in snow, heads out to enjoy a rambunctious and contemplative day in the wintry cityscape.
Having grown up an only child, McMillon connected with Peter’s introspective nature. “Peter has a lot of arias where he’s expressing his thoughts about being alone and how he sees the world,” says McMillon. “I related to that once I started getting into the score.”
But Peter is also a kid, and kids love to run around and go nuts, which meant McMillon, a singer-actress who sang the role of Gretel in the HGO’s digital production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, had to find a way to convey the energy of a seven-year-old boy and not run out of the breath a singer needs to deliver an aria. “It’s just part of the job,” laughs McMillon, who built up her stamina for the performance over the course of several rehearsals. “Peter is definitely the most active role I’ve ever done.”
McMillon describes Thompson’s music for The Snowy Day as “magical,” with elements of Bach, gospel and even Rachmaninoff in its challenging rhythms and rich harmonies. “A lot of moments in the opera are just about excitement, and you can hear it in the music for sure,” says McMillon. “It makes for a good contrast with the slower moments when Peter is alone, because kids can sometimes be very profound.”
Running at just one hour, The Snowy Day is a great way to introduce young ones to opera and how stories can be told with beautiful singing. It is also a rare example of an opera by a Black composer and a Black librettist (Andrea Davis Pinkney) featuring a Black protagonist, and along with Terrence Blanchard’s recent Met premiere, Fire Shut Up In My Bones, has the potential to expand the canon of contemporary opera repertoire.
“It’s such a great experience to have representation you can see onstage and hear in the music,” says McMillon. “My family would love listening to The Snowy Day, whereas it might be a little harder to pull them into a Mozart opera.”
The show runs through Dec. 19, 2021. The Snowy Day is the HGO's 72nd world premiere and first-ever opening-night livestream, which you can watch for free on the HGO Digital webpage.
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