Page to Stage
I was a brown-skinned baby born in the inner city. Mommy and Daddy hoped that someday their daughter would grow up to see the great reality of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream—that all children would be judged by the content of their character. With this in mind, they purchased a copy of The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. The book had just been published. At that very same time, three pivotal things happened. Dr. King delivered his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech, just blocks from where I was born. Weeks later, four Black girls were killed in a racially motivated bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That same year, 1963, The Snowy Day won the Caldecott medal, the highest honor an illustrated book for children can receive. In the midst of turbulent social change, Keats’s vision for children’s literature held bright promise.
On the one hand, thanks to Dr. King’s dream, there was great hope on the horizon. And yet, like a dark cloud, anxiety and uncertainty hung in the air around the unthinkable deaths of those little girls. I can only imagine the fear my parents felt having just welcomed their newborn daughter into the world. Thankfully, The Snowy Day was there to greet me and many children. While a picture book can never erase a tragedy, Keats’s story and colorful illustrations somehow made our troubled world feel better. Among so much upheaval, there was Peter, The Snowy Day’s spirited protagonist, an African American boy in a red snowsuit.
The landmark children’s book was groundbreaking. It was the only mainstream book that featured a Black child as the central character. Peter spends his day crunching through the snowy streets of his urban neighborhood. He’s curious, and filled with undeniable exuberance. The story instantly resonated with readers of all races. The Snowy Day never mentions Peter’s skin color, nor does any of the advertising or flap copy that tells readers what the story is about. Peter’s journey is packed with universal appeal. When, like a beautiful snow, that book fell into their lives, readers rejoiced.
We all needed The Snowy Day when it arrived. Now, nearly 60 years later, Ezra Jack Keats’s words and pictures still bring comfort to millions of children and adults, touching the souls of readers from every walk of life. Only a great book has the power to do that.
A NEW OPERA
When HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers contacted me to craft the libretto for an opera based on the timeless classic, I was like an eager kid leaping onto a sled! Then came countless considerations in adapting the work to be realized in the operatic form.
The Snowy Day is universally beloved by generations of readers. The story’s familiarity brought unique challenges and opportunities. The book has sold ten million copies worldwide, and has been translated into 12 languages. It’s considered by the Library of Congress to be one of the books that has shaped America. In a BBC poll, The Snowy Day was included as one of a select group of stories that has changed the world. It was named one of the 100 Most Important Children’s Books of the 20th Century by the New York Public Library, and is the most checked-out book within that library’s history, including books for children and adults.
There’s a shared consciousness that exists around The Snowy Day. At the same time, a new generation of readers is encountering The Snowy Day for the very first time, or has only a passing familiarity with Keats’s creation.
My first role in crafting the libretto was to approach the storytelling with these aspects in mind. I felt it important to honor the integrity of Keats’s original story, staying as close to its core as possible. Because many audiences will come to the opera with expectations, I wrote with Keats’s original Snowy Day as my compass, while reconceiving the story as a theatrical piece.
As opera audiences become more diverse, I felt it crucial that, like Keats’s literary canon, the opera be one that crosses ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic lines. It’s been important to me that The Snowy Day bring a vibrant dimension to opera audiences to include those from underserved communities who may have never considered attending an opera. In crafting the libretto, it’s been my hope the production will extend a hand to diverse audiences in ways that have the power to bring greater equity and inclusion among operagoers.
In embarking on the libretto, the first consideration was how to bring Peter to life. In Keats’s book, Peter, and those around him, don’t speak. The libretto seeks to render the language of Peter’s inner world, and give voice to the characters who inhabit that world. The libretto’s poetry serves as a conduit to the human heart—a connection that brings a visceral experience to the characters and audience.
It’s virtually impossible to turn a book into a theatrical production without altering the material. And it’s even more challenging when adapting a timeless literary masterpiece. In crafting The Snowy Day as an opera, the story has been enhanced.
While there is no event in the opera that doesn’t occur in the book, the opera takes a new look at the original and its characters to create an exhilarating experience that doesn’t just dramatize The Snowy Day, but expands it by creating a theatrically vital event. While writing, I explored several innovative options. In the original Snowy Day, Peter’s mother appears as an ancillary figure. In the opera, her role is central to the story. At the top of the production, she sings Mama’s Misgivings, an aria that expresses the concerns of a Black mother whose child goes out to play while wearing a hoodie. The aria is one that gives voice to the realities of our nation’s racial reckoning.
After The Snowy Day was published, Keats wrote and illustrated several books that explore Peter’s neighborhood, friends, and family. Peter’s dad is introduced in the stories that follow The Snowy Day. In the opera, Peter’s father plays an important role as a means of presenting a fully intact African American family from the start.
It is my hope that when the curtain goes up, expectations will be immediately suspended. The audience will be ushered into an immersive theatrical tapestry that lets us fall in love anew with a story that has defined the childhoods of many.
The Snowy Day invites the audience to slip their feet into Peter’s boots and walk with him on his journey toward self-understanding and empowerment. As with any theatrical adaptation, each audience member brings their own perspective to the experience. In this case, the goal is not to change Keats’s story, but to illuminate its essence so that each of us feels its power more deeply.
As with any theatrical endeavor, it takes a committed village to bring the vision to life. The Snowy Day has been created by a dream team. Patrick Summers, a brilliant visionary, first heard the music of composer Joel Thompson at the Aspen Music Festival, and immediately knew this rising talent’s singular virtuosity was that of an opera composer. Collaborating with Joel has been a remarkable experience. He’s a genius.
Soprano Raven McMillon, whose vocal powers bring an incomparable depth to the art form, originates the role of Peter, The Snowy Day’s main character. Soprano Karen Slack delivers riveting boldness to the role of Mama. Director Omer Ben Seadia’s directorial brilliance has revolutionized stage direction for both modern operas and classic works. Here, she skillfully expands the canvas on Keats’s classic. Dramaturg Jeremy Johnson’s astute insights throughout the process have illuminated the opera’s breadth in countless ways.
Inspired by this incredible team of collaborators, I’ve written the libretto with an eye toward inviting the music and voices to celebrate the emotional storytelling that exists beyond the words to create a theatrical experience that’s accessible to the widest possible audience. None of this has been possible without the tutelage and guidance of Deborah Pope, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, whose immense knowledge of Keats’s literary legacy remains an invaluable resource in staying faithful to his creative vision.
The simplicity of Keats’s storytelling and art allows each of us to draw our own personal meanings from its prism. There are as many interpretations of The Snowy Day as there are readers who love the book. To me, the story expresses the power of enchantment, as seen through a child’s exuberance. Just as important is the idea that everyone is equal in the eyes of nature’s glistening winter quilt. Snow doesn’t choose where to fall—like an opera, its beauty and wonder are for everyone.
Andrea Davis Pinkney is The New York Times bestselling and Coretta Scott King award-winning author of numerous books, including A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day. She is a four-time NAACP Image Award nominee, and recipient of both the Regina Medal and the Arbuthnot Honor Award, for her singular body of work and distinguished contribution to the field of literature. Pinkney has been inducted into the 2021 New York State Writers Hall of Fame.