The Snow Maiden of Appalachia
Music and libretto by Andrew Haile Austin
After a short instrumental introduction, an actor appears, setting the scene with her description of the wintry Appalachian Virginia. Other unnamed characters join her, saying that somewhere below all the snow on the ground, love lay dormant. The narration describes a Husband and Wife who wished for a child, but are unable to conceive.
Outside in the woods.
The Wife appears, distraught from her dream the previous night in which she saw a child whom she wished would be hers. To cheer his Wife, the Husband builds a child out of snow and describes the good times they would experience as a family. Realizing the futility in longing for the child they can never have, the couple begin to cry. Their tears fall on the figure in snow, who comes to life before their eyes as a young woman. She inquires as to her origin and recounts a dream in which she encountered a woman crying. As each of the two women recognizes each other from her dream, the Husband suggests they not question this miracle, but enjoy it. The three celebrate their newly formed family.
Scene two: In a grange.
Lucinda, a matriarchal character, listens as the indecisive Pauline tries to narrow down her choices for what to sing at the upcoming winter carnival. A man enters the grange, hearing the end of Pauline’s song. As Pauline and the man converse, it is revealed that years ago the man left her on the day of their wedding. The man, who informs Pauline that though she knew him as Henry, he is now called Kelly, recounts his life since leaving town, traveling the country and working as a bootlegger. Pauline and Lucinda get swept up in the excitement of Kelly’s tale and Pauline suggests that she and Kelly may be able to make a new start as a couple.
In the cabin of the Husband and Wife.
Months later, the Snow Maiden and her parents sit before the fire, enjoying the warmth inside the cabin as winter surrounds them outside and singing songs of love and perseverance. The Wife hears the sounds of the winter carnival in the distance and insists the Snow Maiden go to join the festivities.
Scene four: In a grange.
The carnival is in full swing. The scene opens with Pauline singing a carefree dance number. After the number finishes, Pauline finds Kelly, suggesting to him that, since they have been together again for a few months, perhaps they should be married. Kelly evades the topic, walking away to get a drink from the bar, only to see the Snow Maiden entering across the hall. He is immediately enamored with her and approaches her to ask who she is. The Snow Maiden gives enigmatic, though honest, answers to his enquiries, which further intrigues Kelly. Pauline, who sees the end of the conversation, notices Kelly’s fascination with this strange woman and confronts the couple. After a heated exchange, Pauline attacks the Snow Maiden. Kelly intervenes, separating the two woman, and, in a fit of rage, slapping Pauline across the face. The Snow Maiden rushes off while Pauline stares at Kelly in bitter disbelief. Without saying a word, Kelly leaves, following the Snow Maiden, and Pauline is left alone.
The second act opens with a short instrumental prologue, ending with the narrating ensemble humming a folk tune. Lucinda and the Husband, in separate locales, sing their inner thoughts on remembrance, sadness, and regret.
Pauline enters Lucinda’s cabin incensed by her exchange with the Snow Maiden and Kelly. Though Lucinda tries to calm her, Pauline is too distraught to settle down.
Voicing separate internal monologues, Pauline, Kelly, Lucinda, and the Snow Maiden sing in canon about remembrance and loss.
The Snow Maiden enters the cabin of the Husband and Wife, also distraught over the events at the grange. The couple try to comfort her, but she is inconsolable.
In parallel scenes, Lucinda and the Wife recount their life stories to the young women, advising them that “it takes life to love life:” meaning times can be difficult, but living through those moments are what help us appreciate living.
Kelly comes to Lucinda’s cabin to talk with Pauline. He tells Pauline that he has loved her for years. When Pauline asks about his feelings for the Snow Maiden, Kelly admits he was enamored with her. He describes to Pauline what happened after he chased the Snow Maiden down: she revealed that she is only an evanescent creature, not of this world. In parallel scenes, the Snow Maiden and Kelly act out their previous conversation while Pauline listens to Kelly. With much prodding, Kelly admits that he had been married and was physically abusive to his former wife, ultimately driving her to suicide, though many assumed he had murdered her. As if by magic, the Snow Maiden’s words to Kelly become Pauline’s. The two woman, still in separate times and places, both insist that Kelly acknowledge his culpability in his wife’s death. The Snow Maiden and the past fade away from the scene. Pauline reveals her conflicting feelings for Kelly and decides it is time to say goodbye.
Back in the cabin of the Husband and Wife, the couple have been experiencing the exchange between Kelly and the Snow Maiden as she has told the story. They tell the Snow Maiden that she must be open to experiencing love, as they feel love for each other. Confronting her parents, the Snow Maiden asks the couple if love must always come from outside, can it not come from within? At the end of the scene, the Snow Maiden reveals that with the first sign of spring the next morning, she will disappear. She implores the couple to appreciate the love they have for each other instead of longing for what is not there. As the sun rises in the morning hours, the Snow Maiden disappears.
The opera ends with the reemergence of the narrators. All sing a song of love and survival.