Opera North Blog

The Snow Maiden in a nutshell


Everything you need to know about The Snow Maiden in one place — right here!

Once upon a time...

The Snow Maiden is based on the Russian folk tale Snegurochka (Sneg meaning snow).

Snow Maiden has been raised in the icy winter grip of her father, Grandfather Frost and mother, Spring Beauty. Envious of the mortals in the village nearby, she yearns to experience their longings, passions and human emotions, and begs her parents to let her join them.

In the village, she becomes entangled in something of a ‘love square’, but having a heart of ice, does not have the capacity to fall in love. Eventually, on observing the true happiness between the boy with whom she had been fascinated and another girl, Snow Maiden is desperately upset and implores Spring Beauty to enable her to feel this same passion at whatever cost. Her wish is granted – but with disastrous consequences. On falling in love, Frost’s winter spell is broken and in a ray of sunlight, Snow Maiden melts away… 

Who are the characters?

The Snow Maiden (soprano)
Grandfather Frost – Snow Maiden’s father (bass)
Spring Beauty – Snow Maiden’s mother (mezzo-soprano)
Tsar Berendey (tenor)
Lel – the boy Snow Maiden likes, falls in love with Kupava (mezzo-soprano)
Kupava – due to marry Mizgir, falls in love with Lel (soprano)
Mizgir – due to marry Kupava, falls in love with Snow Maiden (baritone) 

Plus members of the community, factory workers, brides and bridegrooms all sung (and danced!) by the Chorus of Opera North, creating quite a visual spectacle. 

What is the music like?

The Snow Maiden has an incredibly colourful score, full to the brim with imaginative depictions of nature and Russian folk melodies. Fascinated with folklore, Rimsky-Korsakov incorporated seasonal ‘calendar songs’ (tunes written for specific ritual occasions) and khorovodi (ceremonial dances) into his music, such as the chorus ‘Farewell Ceremony of Maslenitsa’ in the prologue, which is based on the traditional ritual for Shrove Tuesday. This gives the piece a strikingly Slavic feel. Hear it below performed by our own cast, chorus and orchestra. 

Rimsky also made use of leitmotifs (recurring musical phrases associated with particular people or ideas) long before he’d heard much Wagner (with whom the leitmotif has now become most associated). See if you can pick them out!

Other musical highlights include the famous orchestral showcase ‘Dance of the Tumblers’ and Snow Maiden’s beautiful final ‘melt’ aria

What is this production like?

John Fulljames’ delightful new production of The Snow Maiden focusses on the contrast between the real and mythical worlds in the opera, and on the universal story of a girl growing up.

We begin in a clothing factory in contemporary Russia, in which costumes for the mythical figures of Spring Beauty and Grandfather Frost are made. A young girl falls asleep at her sewing machine, and as she dreams, we are transported back in time to the Russia of days gone by – a world bursting with energy and featuring lots of traditionally patterned fabrics. Look out for the innovative video projections (designed by Will Duke), as the folk-inspired designs of the fabrics worn and worked with on stage appear in new guises.

As summer arrives, love is in the air. Snow Maiden melts and we travel back to ‘reality’ to find the world changed, and no-one quite as they were before… 

Who was the composer?

The Snow Maiden’s music and libretto were both written by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). Rimsky-Korsakov is best known to us today for his orchestral work, such as the hugely popular Scheherazade (based on The Arabian Nights) and lively Capriccio Espagnole.

He was also, however, a major opera composer, and considered this to be his primary calling. He wrote 15 operas in total, most inspired by Russian fairy tales and folklore, which open up a world of the supernatural, the exotic and Slavic pantheism. Of these, Rimsky’s own favourite was The Snow Maiden, writing in his memoirs: “Snegurochka is not only my best opera, but perhaps the best contemporary opera in general”. You’ll have to check it out!

From fireside to stage 

The Russian tale of the Snow Maiden only appeared in writing in the 19th Century. Its actual origin is unknown, as there seems to have been little interest in recording folk tales in Russia before this date. However, in the 1850s and 60s, a man named Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev began to collect and publish vast volumes of Russian folklore, and public interest started to pique. By 1869, he had produced the largest folktale collection published by any one person in the world! In one of these volumes, 'The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs', was buried the story of Snegurochka. This became particularly popular in 1873 when it was adapted into a play, with music by Tchaikovsky!

Several years later, Rimsky-Korsakov, who had been captivated by the collections of Afanasyev for some time, chose the tale as the subject for his opera, which he titled The Snow Maiden: A Spring Fairy Tale. The piece premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg on 29 January 1882. It was revised in 1898 to become the piece we know today.

Did you know?

The Snow Maiden’s prologue contains a chorus known as ‘Dance of the Birds’, a fantastic musical painting featuring fluttering woodwind and a melody apparently inspired by Rimsky’s wife’s own pet bullfinch!

The tale of the Snow Maiden is particularly significant in the Russian tradition as a representation of the seasons. In a climate that experiences long, harsh winters, the coming of spring is an immensely important event. In this story, we see winter and spring in opposition, and for the sun to return, winter (via Snow Maiden) must die. Hence Rimsky gave his opera the sub-title of ‘A spring fairy tale’.

In today’s Russia, the Snow Maiden is a very popular seasonal figure. Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost), the Russian Father Christmas, has evolved into her grandfather rather than her father, and she helps him deliver gifts to good children in celebration of the New Year! 

The Snow Maiden is sung in English with English titles, and lasts approximately three hours including one interval. For more info or to book tickets, visit The Snow Maiden webpage.

In a nutshell is a blog series devised by Opera North. 


The Snow Maiden artwork © Opera North 2016
The Snow Maiden production photography © Richard Hubert Smith
Portrait on Rimsky-Korsakov by Valentin Serov, 1898
Costume designs for The Snow Maiden by Viktor Vasnetsovm, 1885
Snow Maiden Matryoshka Wooden Nesting Russian Dolls 

What you say


Moira Garland said ago

"The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs', was buried the story of Snegurochka. This became particularly popular in 1783 when it was adapted into a play, with music by Tchaikovsky!" I think you mean 1873 don't you?? Opera North response: Yes indeed we do mean 1873 Moira, thank you for spotting!


Ian Packington said ago

Perhaps, like the music of Piotr Tschaikovsky and Dmitri Shostakovitch, this opera by Rimsky Korsakoff will help us to bond with the Russians as deep souled people, sadly crushed in various ways by their contemporary political systems, in particular Stalin's regime of terror, and to a lesser extent, Putin's regime of hoarding Soviet era and petrochemical industry export money for rearmament and political escapades against the West, while the poor of Russia remain in abject poverty! (And it may be that in Tschaikovsky's 6th symphony, we hear the authentic anguished despair of a man ordered by the Tsarist regime to commit suicide for his socially unacceptable LGBT inclinations). But this is charming music, despite the sad fate of its sensitive heroine!

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