HGO’s “Snowy Day” premiere offers a charming musical winter’s tale

Fri Dec 10, 2021 at 2:07 pm
By Steven Brown
Karen Slack, Raven McMIllon and Nicholas Newton in Joel Thompson’s A Snowy Day, presented in its world premiere by Houston Grand Opera Thursday night. Photo: Lynn Lane

Joel Thompson’s The Snowy Day centers on a young boy’s adventures in the title white stuff that just blanketed his neighborhood. But Houston Grand Opera, which commissioned the work in 2018 and premiered it Thursday at the Wortham Theater, thinks of this as more than a children’s piece.

Like many U.S. orchestras and opera companies, HGO wants to reach beyond its traditional audience. A company-produced video that traces the piece’sdrawn-out gestation—which was interrupted by the pandemic—calls The Snowy Day “an opera for all.” But is it?

The tale springs from author-illustrator Ezra Jack Keats’ eponymous work from 1962, the first children’s book with a black main character to break into mainstream readership. (Keats’ little tome eventually became the most checked-out volume in the New York Public Library’s history.) Thompson and librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney, however, have chosen to emphasize the story’s universality. The opera makes no explicit reference to young Peter and his parents’ race—even though HGO has cast black singers in the roles.

Instead, Peter’s romp in the snow is much like any other youngster’s. He chafes while his mother bundles him up; his transformed surroundings arouse his wonder; older boys pick on him; he makes a new friend. Peter’s adventure extends into the night as the big boys invade his dreams, and the opera closes as he begins a second day of fun outdoors.

Thompson and Pinkney tell this story by weaving together elements that may indeed speak to a multiftude of viewers.

Children may enjoy the rambunctiousness of the big boys’ snowball fight and their reappearance in Peter’s dream; they also may appreciate it when one of the older boys finally takes Peter’s side. Girls might enjoy seeing the confidence of Peter’s new friend Amy, who reaches out to him after the older boys push him around. Amy’s occasional words of Spanish add another gentle reminder that Peter lives in a diverse world.

The Snowy Day’s generous doses of full-throated singing may make longtime opera lovers feel right at home. All the roles, including Peter’s, are played by young adults rather than children, and Thompson’s music calls for red-blooded voices—not only to flesh out the vocal lines, but to carry above an instrumental group whose rich sonorities sometimes belie its 15-player dimensions.

Thompson supplies Peter and his mother with arias, and Amy’s voice also gets to soar, both alone and in harmony with Peter’s. Ensembles well up to rich climaxes, and lusty singing even adds wallop to the snowball fight.

Perhaps in a nod to the story’s mid-20th-century origins, Thompson includes some jazzy touches—including a burst of scat singing from Peter while he takes his bath before bedtime. While much of the score gravitates toward the glow of traditional harmonies, the music turns spiky, fittingly enough, when snowballs fly.

And yet the score doesn’t lean toward tunes that linger in the ear. Instead, Thompson ties much of it together through a short motif ending in an upward leap, and that morsel’s changing guises help capture the story’s moods.

Thompson also sometimes misses opportunities that Pinkney’s text puts in front of him. When Peter first steps into the snow, he marvels at the sound of his “quiet, crunchy whisper walk.” Rather than conjure that with the orchestra, Thompson accompanies Peter with a jazzy, pizzicato double-bass line plus short interjections from a marimba—a bouncy bit that could just as well describe someone strolling contentedly through springtime greenery.

HGO treated The Snowy Day to a lively, committed performance Thursday, thanks especially to a fine cast that captured the characters’ excitement, mischief and emotion.

Soprano Raven McMillon’s warm voice and wide-eyed demeanor lent Peter an aura of sweetness and innocence the carried through his playfulness. 

Soprano Elena Villalón’s Amy exuded pluck and confidence, and the silvery tinge to Villalón’s voice let her complement McMillon when their voices joined.

Soprano Karen Slack boasted a hefty voice with something of a mezzo-soprano’s glow, and she poured it out generously in Mama’s aria about her love for her son.  Bass-baritone Nicholas Newton, as Daddy, added sonorous tones of his own to the scenes in Peter’s home.

Thanks to quick costume changes, Newton also took part in the trio of older boys who harass Peter when they first encounter him; Newton contributed not only a booming voice but a dash of acrobatics. Completing the rowdy group, tenor Andres Acosta and bass Cory McGee added their own vocal punch.

Director Omer Ben Seadia’s staging captured not only the coziness of Peter’s home but—with the help of movement director Courtney B. Jones—the freewheeling fun of the youngsters’ antics in the snow. Designer Amy Rubin’s set evoked the snowy terrain through expanses of fabric draped on the stage, pulled in from the sides and lowered from the fly space.

Conductor Patrick Summers deftly fit together the changes of mood and setting. He gave the dreamier moments enough breadth to settle in, but whenever the hijinks in the snow took over, he led the singers and orchestra to give them spirit and playfulness. At times, the pit ensemble all but drowned out the singers, but that may have been built into the orchestration—with too much going on for the voices to cut through.

When the voices did win out, the downside of the big-scale vocalism—just as it can be in traditional operas—was that the words sometimes got lost. One test of The Snowy Day’s outreach appeal may lie in whether children or newcomers to opera are willing to send their gaze vaulting between stage and supertitle screen. Then again, maybe they’ll simply let the words slide, just as opera lovers often do.

The Snowy Day runs through December 19 at Wortham Theater Center. houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737.

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