Jamie Barton Sings Her Way Through a Cooking Lesson as Julia Child in Bon Appétit!

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is ready to bake.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is ready to bake. Photo by Anne Clowdus

Acclaimed mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is channeling her inner Julia Child in Bon Appétit! , a comic opera of just 20 minutes that pairs a typical TV lesson by the world-famous chef with an operatic score.

And thanks to COVID-19 and director (and opera bass-baritone) Ryan McKinny, it has all been captured on film and will be available to fans of Houston Grand Opera's digital series on November 27. A one-woman endeavor (accompanied by a pianist), it was perfect for production operating under pandemic restrictions.

"We filmed this back in July," says Barton in a telephone interview from her base in Atlanta, Georgia.  "Yes, were being as careful as we possibly could in terms of wearing masks and keeping six feet apart at minimum and it’s a very different thing to be on film as opposed to singing for an audience for sure."

McKinny who has been doing a number of streaming opera presentations approached Barton about doing this.

"We actually filmed this in Ryan McKinny's Asheville, North Carolina kitchen."

The opera is modeled after an actual episode (with a little bit of borrowing from another televised lesson) in which Child demonstrated how to make a souffle-like French chocolate cake, Barton says. And while she doesn't actually cook anything, she does all the mixing and separation of egg whites that would go into what she's making — while singing. "I happen to like to cook so it was delightful for me."

"It's a little like Food Network. It's showing the process of doing it and there are cakes that are pre-baked that are part of the show."

This isn't the first time Barton has performed the piece with music by Lee Hoiby with a libretto based on Julia Child's actual words adapted by Mark Shulgasser, but it is the first time it was done for film. She also became her own costume designer — she had previously sewed a cooking patch like the late Child (who died in 2004) would wear on her shirt and used that shirt for the filming. She didn't have access to a wig, but her hair had been cut in a bob so she just put it in rollers to capture the hairstyle used by Child.

When she originally approached the role she presented it as a very truthful recreation of Julia Child, she says. "But the more I got into it ... Julia is in so many ways a caricature in all of our heads. We have the TV episodes but the idea of Julia Child is a composite of Julia meets Meryl Streep meets Dan Ackroyd. And I think this is a little closer to the Dan Ackroyd version. It's kitschy music, it's bubbly. I took inspiration from the music that Lee Hoiby put into it. And decided to go with that kind of campy presentation."

An advantage of the filming, Barton says, is that she finally got to see herself in the role and terms the results "really hilarious" adding that "Anything that you can imagine happening in a Julia Child cooking episode is in this opera."

"I’ve been doing this opera for a lot of years. I've done it everywhere from Carnegie Hall stage to Fire Island and everywhere I’ve done it it’s always been so well received. People love Julia Child. People love cooking shows. You put those two together and put opera with it and it's appealing to just about anyone."

Bon Appétit! is scheduled for streaming directly after The Impresario in a double bill on HGO Digital starting at 7:30 p.m. on Novermber 27. Steam the recital on your computer, tablet or smartphone by logging into HGO.org or marquee.tv. Or stream it on your television by  accessing the Marquee TV app using your Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, or other device.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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