Preview: The Snowy Day at the Houston Grand Opera

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Emmy-winning composer Joel Thompson had never done opera before, but when Patrick Summers of the Houston Grand Opera approached him with the seed of an idea to build on the classic children’s book Snow dayhe was both “humiliated” and ready to go.

“All of a sudden, opera made sense as a possible genre for me,” says Thompson, who until now was best known for his orchestral and choral work. His compositions such as “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” often deal with heavier themes. HGO’s proposal represented a chance to do something different.

From the award-winning Caldecott book of the same title by Ezra Jack Keats, the opera version of Snow 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 children’s grand prize.

Thompson and librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney worked to build the score and story out of what is, admittedly, a fairly short book about a young boy’s experiences with snow. The two had somewhat different views on the message he was conveying, he said, but that didn’t 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 goals on the book,” says Thompson.

The composer, who is currently pursuing his doctorate in musical arts at Yale University, grew up in the Bahamas – although he spent three years in Houston from the age of 10 – and now considers Atlanta his port. of attachment. As a child he owned a copy of Snow day in English and Spanish. Although he didn’t experience his first real snowfall until November 2018. “I was able to tap into that sense of wonder that Peter experiences, I think, when he sees snow for the first time. . ”

Describing the book’s enduring appeal, Thompson says, “I think he taps into that intangible sense of wonder that we tend to lose as we get older and it’s all over the book. Art collage techniques. the colorful way that Jack Keats portrays snow so it’s not just the realistic white that we see here in New England, but we see purple and blue and all those other colors in the snow.

“I think opera as a genre lends itself to great emotions. A lot of times the emotions tend to be on the negative side of the spectrum: heartbreak and tragedy. But I think one of the things that does that this story lasts, even though it is very simple, although to some adult eyes it seems like nothing is happening some of the most seismic moments in this tale are when it makes a snow angel in the snow or its snowball he picks up after that long day in the melting snow and that’s the biggest tragedy. He has a nightmare and imagines all the snow is melting and even himself but then he wakes up to a new one. In the eyes of a child, these are huge events. So I feel like opera lends itself to this great emotion, “said Thompson.

“I also think there is something about singing on stage; there is a suspension of disbelief that has to occur there is a surrender to your imagination that has to occur that lends itself to engaging. with the art form and I. I think it provides a gateway to a child’s mind. If we take that first step, it’s even easier to slip into Peter’s mind, to slip into the mind of a 7-year-old black boy who sees snow for the first time. ”

Click to enlarge Thompson at the studio with librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney.  - PHOTO BY MATTHEW FRIED

Thompson at the studio with librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney.

Photo by Matthew Fried

The challenge for him as a composer, says Thompson, was “to try to create something that was always suited to the opera scene, that was dramatic, that has a narrative trajectory that is always entertaining to engage. for an hour, but also everyone is able It was a challenge but I hope we got closer to the spirit of the original.

“Much of my music before this project looked at the world through the prism of fear and grief and tried 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 played all the time. “There has never been a moment of silence in my house,” he laughs. In his undergrad, he got degrees in music and pre-med “and I kept going as long as I could”. From there he turned to conducting, then arranging the music in hymns and finally began to write his own pieces. It has become a way for me to really express myself. ”

He thinks audiences of all types should be open to this play.

“I think one thing that Andrea and I really wanted to point out was that this story is for everyone. There is a lot of baggage with opera associated with the opera genre when it comes to race, course, 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 is 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 kind of racial calculation and distress that’s going on at the seams of our society, there is a work art that can remind us to hold on to each other and remind yourself that life is precious, that the simple things are sometimes the most precious. And because it is so precious, we should share it with d ‘other people.

“The very last picture in the book is Peter holding his friend’s hand between those giant snowbanks. For me, the big takeaway from the book was: he went through all the snow on his own. Then he lost it. snow and he thought all the snow would be lost. But when he saw the snow was there again the first thing he did was run across the hallway to his friend and tell him to live this together. After COVID, after feeling the world is coming to an end, I hope we can look across the aisle, hold hands, walk in the snow and experience it all together. J I feel like that’s at least my goal for this project. ”

Performances of The Snowy Day are scheduled from December 9 to 19 at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue. Masks covering the nose and mouth are mandatory. For more information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $ 30 to $ 107.


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