‘The Snowy Day,’ an opera adapted from Black children’s book, premieres in Houston

First published in 1962, 'The Snowy Day' was among the first major children's picture books to feature a Black protagonist

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The Houston Grand Opera (HGO) premiered its latest production, The Snowy Day, on Dec. 9. It was a watershed moment, as the opera is an adaptation of a popular children’s picture book of the same name which centered around Black characters.

The Snowy Day, written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, was first published in 1962 and is regarded as the first major picture book for kids featuring Black people as lead characters, according to Texas Monthly. The book tells the tale of a little Black boy named Peter and follows him as he becomes spellbound after seeing the first snow of the season. He makes snow angels, goes sledding, builds a snowman, and experiences the sadness of a melting snowball that he tried to keep with him when he came in from the cold.

The children’s story was adapted into an opera by Andrea Davis Pinkney, who wrote the libretto, and Joel Thompson, who composed the music. Beginning the creative process in 2019, both Pinkney and Thompson were introduced to The Snowy Day as kids themselves. Pinkney said it was one of the first books she had in her nursery as a small child.

“I remember sleeping with it like it was a pillow,” Pinkney told Texas Monthly. “I was embracing the brownness of Peter; I was embracing seeing myself represented on the cover of that book.” 

Thompson was introduced to the book by his mother, a school teacher, while they were living in the Bahamas. “It was fascinating for two reasons: I saw a child who looked like me, and I had never seen snow,” Thompson said to the outlet. “They were both foreign things that were equally full of wonder.”

The Snowy Day written and drawn by Ezra Jack Keats. (Credit: Keats/Viking Press)

Pinkney, a New York Times best-selling author, described the challenges of transforming a picture book, with just over 300 words, into a 60-minute opera that captivated an audience.

“Our first consideration was how to bring the story to life and make it theatrically vibrant,” Pinkney said. “The libretto seeks to give voice to Peter’s inner world and the people that inhabit that world.” 

Raven McMillon, an (HGO) studio artist, has taken on the role of Peter in the production, Omer Ben Seadia is directing, and HGO’s Music Director Patrick Summers is conducting the music. The Snowy Day runs until Dec. 19.

Production of The Snowy Day comes after a historic new opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House this past September. With music composed by trumpeter and film composer Terence Blanchard, it was the first opera by a Black composer to ever play at the Metropolitan Opera, as theGrio reported. Like The Snowy Day, it was adapted from a book about a young Black child.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones took the memoir of writer Charles Blow and poignantly retold the tale of a young Black man dealing with childhood trauma while navigating through the racist American South. The landmark production was sold out through its final performance in October.

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