While New York’s Metropolitan Opera achieved a major milestone this fall by presenting Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, making it the first opera by a Black composer ever performed in Met history, Houston Grand Opera has presented four operas by Black composers: Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (1976, 1981), Leroy Jenkins’ The Mother of Three Sons (1992), Damien Sneed’s Marian’s Song (2020, 2021) – and now the World Premiere of Joel Thompson’s The Snowy Day, based on the classic children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats.
This points to the trend in the company’s 66-year history, in particular in recent decades, of engaging in efforts towards diversity and inclusion in opera.
As shown by data shared with Houston Arts Journal, Houston Grand Opera has also staged five operas by Asian composers and six by Hispanic composers – including Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, the world’s first mariachi opera.
Most of those operas were commissioned by HGOco, an initiative started by the company in 2007 with the intention of producing new works that center the diversity of Houston.
Marian’s Song, an HGOco commission inspired by the life of Marian Anderson, was produced by the Black artistic team of composer Damien Sneed, librettist Deborah DEEP Mouton, and director Dennis Whitehead Darling. The Snowy Day marks the company’s first mainstage production by a Black composer and librettist team, that of Joel Thompson and Andrea Davis Pickney.
The company’s trend points not only to more stories about diverse communities but also the creation of those stories by members of those communities.
Houston Grand Opera’s track record stands out when compared to other major U.S. opera houses, such as the Met, and other performing arts industries, such as Broadway – where 100% of Broadway musicals were led by white directors in the 2018-19 season, including shows written by BIPOC writers and/or about the BIPOC experience, according to the Visibility Report from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition.
Inclusion overlaps with accessibility – in order to include as many stories and audience members as possible, you have to make opera easier to find, learn about, and afford.
Houston Grand Opera had already begun experimenting with digital operas pre-pandemic by producing a series of mini opera films for YouTube. But COVID-19 lockdowns and social-distancing would force opera companies across Texas to commit to digital offerings, with the Houston company expanding its efforts into HGO Digital – a virtual platform for presenting an entire season of programming, mostly free of charge, which has continued into this season.
This innovation of the pandemic has now led to another first in the company’s history: the free, online presentation of a live opening night performance. Houston Grand Opera live-streamed the World Premiere of The Snowy Day on December 9. That performance will remain on their website through January 8, 2022, with only registration required for viewing.
“It’s thrilling not only to be able to see all of you here back in the Wortham, but to be able to share this evening with a global audience watching online,” said Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO, in opening night remarks from the stage.
“Just like the snowball that Peter [in The Snowy Day] tries to save in his pocket, live theater is ephemeral. But thanks to technology, we get to hold tonight’s performance in our pockets forever,” Dastoor said.
For an opera that has the potential to introduce more children, families, and communities than ever to the art form, that kind of lasting impression – and impact – just might be possible.
Read more here:
Houston Grand Opera’s ‘The Snowy Day’ Celebrates Black Joy (via Texas Monthly)
‘The Snowy Day,’ a Children’s Classic, Becomes an Opera (via The New York Times)