How this HGO-commissioned world-premiere opera came to be.
How do new operas find their way to us? Unless you are following closely, it could be surprising to learn that anyone is still
writing operas. Composing an opera feels like such a 19th century thing to do, like making horseshoes or being an elevator
operator. But rest assured, opera lover, new ones are being created all the time. Quite a lot of them, actually, pandemic-be-damned,
and they reflect the extraordinary musical diversity of contemporary composers.
But how do these new operas happen? Ultimately, they happen for the same reason Mozart wrote The Marriage of Figaro: they can’t
not happen—a composer has such a burning engine inside that they must compose—nothing would stop the opera Figaro, not a ban
on the play, and not even being told it could never be performed or commissioned.
Passion may write operas, but only a good deal of money gets them put on. Composing is the poetry, and a commission is the prose.
A commission is a contract and mutual agreement between a producing company like HGO and the creative mind of a composer plus all the attendant creatives necessitated by their creation: librettist, designers, singers, conductor, director, marketers, and all the
money to pay for them must be raised by the non-profit producing company. Operas cost more than they will likely ever make, so love
must play a large role in any opera. We commission and compose for the same reason: we love the creation itself.
Houston Grand Opera has a long tradition of replenishing the operatic repertoire with works of our own time—we call them “world
premieres,” an admittedly odd term, for in what world would they premiere but this one? Premieres connect us to the legacy of the art
form, for the storied premieres of classical music are touchstones of history—we love the sense of having been there for the launching of a creation. The emphasis on operatic premieres in the 21st century contrasts with how often we repeat the standard repertory, those
15-20 operas that large audiences recognize as opera: Aida, Tosca, La traviata, Carmen. For many, an opera season just isn’t appealing without them—still others have seen plenty of Bohèmes in their life and are eager to see something new. HGO has a responsibility to all those desires.
The tradition of HGO premieres started in the early 1970s with the appointment of David Gockley as the company’s General Director.
New musical roads have continued to be traveled throughout my artistic directorship and will continue further, in new and exciting
directions, with Khori Dastoor’s exciting recent appointment as HGO’s General Director. New operas are the most important work
we do, for what could be more vital than creating the works of the future?
This feels especially true in this pandemic recovery season, in which the most exciting opera is unquestionably our youngest one,
The Snowy Day by composer Joel Thompson, with a libretto by Andrea Davis Pinkney based on Ezra Jack Keats’s iconic 1962
Like many new works, The Snowy Day had a circuitous path to this December of 2021. I first heard the music of Joel Thompson at the
Aspen Music Festival in the summer of 2017, and the memory is indelible. I knew within 30 seconds of hearing his orchestral work,
An Act of Resistance, that I was in the presence of a major compositional voice. How does one know these things? Know is probably
the wrong verb, for one never knows anything in art except the most mundane things. That said, there are qualitative differences
between Mozart or Verdi and the hundreds of composers who were their contemporaries, and these differences are not just history’s
caprice—they really were, on artistic merit alone, that good.
So is Joel Thompson: great composers have music as their primary mode of expression, and they ultimately need nothing else to speak for them. They engage with the world, reflect on it, and express it as music, not music that is about other music nor music that needs description to understand, but right at that spiritual core of “this is me.” Composers like Joel find universality, yet they are also totally unique. This is Joel Thompson: his music is already universal, very assured, and honest even at his young age, and music emanates from every aspect of his existence. He often doesn’t realize what he’s written until he’s written it, and this is a universal quality of greatness, too: it isn’t planned—it just is. Real talent is both unaware of itself and perfectly secure.
The American soprano Julia Bullock, based in Germany, was the initial impetus of The Snowy Day, until the pandemic made her participation impossible, both for the original premiere date of December 2020 and the workshop and HGO Digital documentary we planned to replace the canceled live performances. In a discussion of potential future projects, a conversation that happened at least six years ago, it was Julia who originally mentioned to us that she had always dreamed of an opera on the children’s book The Snowy Day. Immediately the idea sputtered to life; not all ideas do.
Her mention of The Snowy Day transported me back to my 1960s early childhood in Indiana, when my parents had me enrolled in a
children’s book club, and the monthly arrival of a book was always a big thrill. I can still remember the feeling of opening The Snowy
Day, and I’m sure my parents have preferred to forget my nightly demands to have it read to me multiple times, requests that went on
for months. I’m sure we collectively read it 1,000 times.
I mentally filed away Julia’s Snowy Day wish. At the Aspen class where I first heard the music of Joel Thompson, I immediately wrote
in my omnipresent notebook, “Snowy Day?” as well as, “what a great composer!” When the class finished, I asked to meet Joel.
We stepped outside, sat under an Aspen tree, and started talking. Discussing many things and ideas, I mentioned to him The Snowy
Day. He lit up with recognition, as it hit a memory for him, too. He asked for some time, as he is not an impetuous sort of person, and
after several weeks he called and agreed to bring The Snowy Day to the world as an opera.
But wait…it’s not that easy. For a work of intellectual property still in copyright, the rights to adapt it must be negotiated with whomever
owns it—in this case, the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation. Sometimes, the rights for a property are simply impossible to obtain, and this
has happened several times with operas we wanted to commission. What would make the rights difficult? The first responsibility
of someone who owns intellectual property is to protect it, and some view any musicalizing to be against the wishes of the original
author—this is a fairly common eventuality in seeking stage rights for musicals or operas. Often, they are holding out for a movie and
don’t want any competition. Always, there is the question of the fair distribution of money. Obtaining rights is often very time-consuming, as it was with The Snowy Day.
But once those rights were obtained and everything was in place, the creative work on the opera began, and it progressed quickly.
Andrea Davis Pinkney turned in a beautiful libretto that we all loved, and it is important to recognize how challenging it is to write a
libretto on The Snowy Day. Keats’s book is sparse and can be read in a couple of minutes. The main character, Peter, says nothing
in the book at all. The experience of the book is more visual than verbal. It is gentle and comforting, all nice qualities, but lacks the engine of stage works: conflict. Andrea had the challenge of creating language for each of these characters, making them real,
providing conflict and resolution—all of which she achieved with a poet’s insight and a dramatist’s tautness. She turned this symbolic
book into a set of characters and gave it a dramatic arc. The opera was workshopped at Yale University, and HGO’s superb dramaturg
Jeremy Johnson has played a huge role in shepherding this work to its present form. I am delighted that emerging soprano and HGO
Studio artist Raven McMillon is taking the Cullen Theater stage as Peter in her first leading role with the company.
So now, fellow opera lovers, nearly sixty years after the book came into the world, six years after an opera on it was first conjured in
a conversation, four years after I met Joel, three years after we secured the rights, two years after it was written, and one year after
it was supposed to premiere, it is time for The Snowy Day to finally reach our stage.