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Peter in the snow
All illustrations by Ezra Jack Keats. Photos courtesy of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

An adorable Black child, on the page and on the stage.

Race and Opera: Part 2 of 4-pert series

The previous installment in this series offered up a dilemma: inauthentic representations in classic operas often perpetuate harmful stereotypes of non-Western European cultures. “But the music is so good, and the emotions are universal,” we say, unwilling to admit to ourselves that our beloved artform has caused harm. There’s a raging debate now in the industry: is opera racist? I gingerly fall on the side of “no”—opera is a medium of expression, and I’m not sure that a medium of expression can inherently be racist—but, with a caveat: this medium of expression has been used to perpetuate racism and racist stereotypes. The history is what the history is, and we can’t change that. But we can change our present and our future. Enter scene: new works. 

One of many possibilities for addressing our dilemma is to commission new works. HGO has a long history of doing just that, The Snowy Day being the company’s 70th world premiere in our 66-year history. Authentic representations, told by creators of all backgrounds, can broaden not just the operatic repertoire, but also who we see on the stage and our own perspective on the universality of the human condition. Operatic emotions can indeed be universal, if more of us have a seat at the table. 

 

The 1962 children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day, offers a compelling frame of reference. When Keats published this story of a little Black boy playing in the snow, it was the first book to break the color barrier in children’s literature, featuring a child of color as the primary protagonist.

 

There were others that hadn’t entered mainstream publishing, such as The Story of Little Black Sambo, originally published in 1923, but this and its counterparts perpetuated the same dilemma of inauthentic representation. Langston Hughes criticized these as “pickaninny stories,” harmful to Black children because of the racist stereotypes depicted in the books and their illustrations. The Snowy Day received its fair share of criticism, interestingly, from two relatively opposing perspectives. The first: how could Keats, a white Jewish man, presume to write a story about a Black child? The second: why didn’t Keats, a man who had the opportunity to publish mainstream children’s books at a time when Black authors often didn’t, go even further in making Peter’s race a powerful statement in the civil rights era? 

The latter criticism diminished when civil rights activists saw the immense impact the book had. The Snowy Day won the Caldecott Medal in 1963 and was wholly embraced by parents, teachers, and children of all races and backgrounds. Andrea Davis Pinkney, the librettist of our opera, remembers growing up with the book: 

“When I read The Snowy Day as a child, I saw a reflection of my brown-skinned self, celebrated through Peter’s sense of wonder and discovery. I think I slept with my copy of The Snowy Day. That’s how much the book meant to me! It was like a bed pillow.” 

Another story from the book’s early days illustrates the importance of representation. Keats received many letters from the book’s admirers, and one teacher wrote, “The kids in my class, for the first time, are using brown crayons to draw themselves. These are African-American children. Before this, they drew themselves with pink crayons. But now, they can see themselves.”  

Now, the other criticism Keats received—that of presuming to write about a Black child when he himself was not Black—is a criticism that has subsided for The Snowy Day due to its positive impact, but is one that has recently been amplified, and not just in opera. Each medium of artistic expression, including movies, battles with the debate of “who gets to tell whose story.” Would publishers even allow Ezra Jack Keats to write The Snowy Day in 2021? Would this world premiere opera be resisted if the composer and librettist were not Black artists? 

 

Pinkney, who is not only a bestselling, award-winning author but also a publishing executive based in New York, offers a great perspective: “When Ezra Jack Keats created The Snowy Day, he did so, in part, with a mission of bringing more diversity to children’s literature. That goal remains among the community of children’s book creators and publishers. 

The story and depiction of Peter come from Keats’s lived experience of growing up in Brooklyn. He chose to make Peter Black to depict the neighbors and friends on his street. If The Snowy Day were published today, its universal impact and importance would be the same—the story’s celebration of enchantment and wonder. Now, however, the book could be edited by a person of color working in the publishing house. The marketing and promotion of the book would have Black people weighing in. The art director would be Black. The editor would enlist an authenticity reader to ensure that the visual and written representations accurately portrayed a Black child and his family. In the early 1960s there were virtually no Black people working in children’s book publishing or having a voice in these conversations. Thankfully, that’s changing.” 

Add another layer to this: we all have an artistic imperative to truly empathize with one another, despite our differences in lived experiences. I recall a panel many years ago in which an opera librettist lamented the emphasis on telling stories only about one’s own experiences: to paraphrase, and to obscure the identity, “Am I only allowed to write operas about 43-year-old white women who grew up in rural Minnesota with a single mother?” The sentiment is convincing but misses a broader perspective that speaks to where we are right now: throughout opera’s history, artists of color have been systematically prevented from telling any story, let alone their own. If opera companies continue to tell stories of people of color without including artists of color in those stories’ creations, is that not systematically preventing certain artists from joining the operatic table? How do we then claim universality? Perhaps there is a future in which any artist of any background can tell any story without criticism; but until every medium of artistic expression creates an environment where all artists and creators are equitably represented, that future will elude us. 

Let’s briefly add one more layer to this conversation: do our thoughts change about the above if the story is not “about” a character’s race? And how does one determine that? The Snowy Day book was not explicitly about the Black experience; it was about the childhood experience. Deborah Pope, Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, commented on the fact that nowhere in the text does Keats mention that Peter is African-American, saying to NPR’s All Things Considered, “It wasn’t the point. The point is that this is a beautiful book about a child’s encounter with snow, and the wonder of it.”  

New operatic commissions provide the perfect opportunity to supplement and complement our existing repertoire, to bring more artists to the operatic table, and to broaden our perspective on the universality of the human condition. That’s what the operatic artform is all about. And if we want an ideal future in which artistic empathy thrives regardless of background or lived experience, we must actively work to create an environment where all artists and creators are equitably represented. As Joel Thompson said in a recent Cues interview, “If everyone in a community can see and hear themselves on stage, and in the creative team, and play a part in sharing and holding space for each other’s stories, opera can become the space where we connect in an age of increasing isolation. That’s the future I’d like to see.”

Jeremy Johnson

About the author

Jeremy Johnson

Jeremy Johnson is the Dramaturg at Houston Grand Opera.

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