Angela Allen

Whimsical, warm, winsome.

The Snowy Day, Portland Opera’s one-act hour-long spring piece, playing through March 24 at the Newmark Theatre, is built on the beguiling 1962 children’s picture book by Ezra Jack Keats. The book–more than the opera, which was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera and premiered there in 2021–was a game-changer. It was the first children’s book from a major publisher (Viking Press) to feature a Black child, and the first prestigious Caldecott Medal-winner (1963) to tell a Black kid’s story. That was some six decades ago, and many people, including former First Lady Michelle Obama and Native American best-selling author Sherman Alexie, consider it one of the first books they loved. Today, you can’t find it at the library. It is usually checked out.

In the past few years, a number of Black and BIPOC operas have been produced across the country — and Portland Opera has staged several, including The Central Park Five and Thumbprint. So The Snowy Day opera is not so revolutionary in bringing attention to cultures other than white ones, as it is charming, a warm blanket for kids to wrap up in. Composer Joel Thompson, whose hopeful music was also featured in this month’s Resonance Ensembles’ “Amendment: Righting our Wrongs” concert, is better known for his choral work, but his playful score lifted the libretto and set the opera’s tone and intent, creating a childlike atmosphere where you can imagine tiny footprints in the snow. The music is loaded with percussion and timpani including the vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, congas, claves, vibraslap, sleigh bells, crotales, snare drum, sus cymbals, crash cymbals, bass drum, tubular bells and tam-tam.

After writing the opera, Thompson was appointed as the Houston Grand Opera’s first full-time composer-in-residence.

Portland Opera preserved the original opera’s light touch as Peter (soprano Flora Hawk, who performed the role in Houston) ventures out into the snow, alone, to discover his neighborhood and neighbors (some of them bullies and bigger than him). Though Peter is itching to explore, his mother (soprano Lianna Wimberley Williams) is worried about his first solitary journey into the snow, as most moms would be. But as Peter sings “Whisper Walk,” hoping the snow will last forever, she sings “Mama’s Misgivings,” after bundling him up in his red snowsuit, almost exactly like the elfin one with the pointed cap that Keats drew years ago.

Sound familiar? We’ve all gone through anticipating adventure as kids, and worrying about our children’s safety as moms.

It was up to the librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney, a prolific author and writer of the 2016 A Poem for Peter: Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day, to find words for the characters. She had to create an inner and outer world for each of them, especially for Peter, who is wordless in the book. The mother is not well developed, and there was no father in the book. (This is a short, quick-read, picture book.) Adding the father and the parents’ obvious concern makes the opera a more conventional family story, though families come in many shapes and sizes. Peter returns home to his family — his dad (baritone Sankara Harouna) is off to night-shift work — his pocketed snowball that he wanted to preserve forever has melted, and he is shepherded into bed. There goes that “forever” theme and thing, snow melting, but perhaps returning in his dreams, in the future, and in memory.

In an interview with Portland Opera’s Silja Tobin, Pinkney says, “My hope is that the libretto’s poetry serves as a conduit to the heart — a connection that lets the audience step into Peter’s snow boots and walk with him, feeling his soul’s rhythm each step.”

Along with the music, that connection helped the opera to appeal to both children and adults, though some adults might feel that it’s not meaty enough to pass as an opera. I wasn’t one of them. The lack of sturm and drang was refreshing.

Conducted by Damien Geter, PO’s interim music director (as well as singer, artistic advisor, and composer), the production made a valiant effort to keep kids’ attention, peppering the piece with surprises. Did they see Willie, the dog, in a couple of scenes? Did anyone notice that Peter’s bedroom window changes from day into night? What about the books on Peter’s bookshelf: Don’t they look like the cityscape that happens later in the opera?

So the opera is not only a first journey, it’s a treasure hunt for the audience. Michael Clark’s imaginative lighting, Amy Rubin’s whimsical scenery (her astounding scenic skills were apparent in San Francisco Opera’s Omar production last fall), and Jessica Jahn’s kids’-favored primary-colored costumes made the opera feel like a familiar fairy tale that popped off the page. Yet it felt like a real story that kids could be part of, or might be in the future when they convince their parents that they are game to set forth into a world bigger than their home. Houston Grand Opera designed and built the scenery, props and costumes, but congratulations to PO for bringing it here, casting most of it, and performing it.