You expect to find Julia Child teaching you the ins and outs of bouillabaisse on an old episode of The French Chef, and in the pages of one of her many cookbooks, and even at the heart of an award-winning Meryl Streep performance.
But in an opera?
Why yes, said American composer Lee Hoiby, who created a one-act opera based on Child’s television show in 1989. The piece now lends its name to Da Camera’s 2019-2020 season-opening program, Bon Appetit!
Da Camera Artistic Director Sarah Rothenberg says she discovered “Bon Appetit!” through conversations with mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, who will perform in the one-woman show as Child, an American woman who completely changed the country’s relationship with food with the publication of her 752-page tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 1961.
“It gave people all the steps to making boeuf bourguignon, soufflés, and all these French dishes that Americans would be terrified of making, and making them authentically, but she adapted the process to what she knew American kitchens would have and introduced American cooks at home to a lot of ingredients and equipment that they might not have had in the past,” says Rothenberg.
“Bon Appetit!” is structured like an episode of Child’s TV show, and Rothenberg says that “in this particular episode, as Julia announces at the beginning: ‘Today, we are going to make a chocolate cake.’”
Rothenberg says Hoiby’s music, coupled with a libretto by Mark Shulgasser drawn directly from transcripts of The French Chef, “follows the rhythm and the spirit of Julia Child” and “underlines the drama of what goes on when you are baking a chocolate cake.
“People don’t think of that as a dramatic story, but if you are at home doing it and you’ve got company coming at the end of the day, we all know that it can be a bit of a drama,” says Rothenberg.
Fischer will lend her voice to the role (originated by Jean Stapleton, forever in the hearts of millions for her turn as lovable dingbat Edith Bunker), and Grammy-nominated quintet Imani Winds will join Rothenberg to play an arrangement for wind quintet and piano. Ned Canty, the director of Opera Memphis, will stage the piece for Da Camera, and Rothenberg shares that “there will be a chocolate cake made, there will be eggs, you will see it all in action.”
Though the program shares its name with Hoiby’s one-act opera, Rothenberg says the actual “bon appétit” of the evening is Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” which opens the concert. “It seemed a great way to open and welcome everyone not just to the concert that night, but to the entire season that we have planned.”
Imani Winds will take the stage solo for Ravel’s piece, which Rothenberg describes as one of his most beloved, as evidenced by the sheer number of arrangements for it.
“Ravel was a master orchestrator – in many ways, he changed the way we hear orchestras,” explains Rothenberg. “He really knew how to use wind instruments, so this arrangement really shows off those timbral colors. The five wind instruments really become a mini-orchestra.”
Despite composing “Le Tombeau de Couperin” during World War I and dedicating each of its five movements to a fallen friend, Rothenberg says Ravel’s piece is hardly somber.
“Tombeau is in the French baroque tradition a tribute to a deceased figure, but the tribute doesn’t mean it’s a piece of mourning,” says Rothenberg. “It’s not something necessarily written out of sadness, but written as a homage.”
Rothenberg adds, “If you didn’t know, from listening to it you would not think of it as a memorial.”
Next, on the menu is Francis Poulenc’s “Le bal masque,” one of the French composer’s favorite works and one Rothenberg says Poulenc himself considered the piece people should listen to if they wanted to know him.
“Le bal masque” was commissioned by a French couple known for their artistic patronage, which favored surrealist works, and their hosting of elaborate masked balls (hence the title). It made its debut in 1932 before a roomful of noted surrealists, including Luis Buñuel.
“It’s a parade of imaginary characters who appear and sing, sometimes in what seems like humorous nonsense rhymes,” says Rothenberg, who explains that the writer of the text, Max Jacob, was inspired as much by the sounds of individual words as their actual meaning.
And, as a surrealist poet, Rothenberg says much of Jacob’s text defies explanation, which “goes with a lot of things that came out of the surrealist movement.”
“Surrealism in many ways was a reaction to World War I, because the losses and deaths of World War I were so overwhelming to the young generation that lived through it that there was a sense that life was not rational, that you couldn’t logically explain what went on in life,” explains Rothenberg. “Anything that is surrealist, whether it is poetry or other forms of writing or painting, is about things going next to each other that would not logically fit together.”
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Bringing Jacob’s words to life is bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who will be making his return – “after too many years,” says Rothenberg – to the Da Camera stage. McKinny will be familiar to Houston arts lovers as Houston Grand Opera’s Don Giovanni this past April.
“It takes a lot of personality, I would say, which is something Ryan McKinny has tons of,” says Rothenberg. She adds that the piece has a “great instrumental ensemble” and, because Poulenc was highly influenced by popular music of his time, “it’s a very upbeat and fun piece, and very expressive, dramatic, virtuosic in a lot of ways.”
With a famous French chef and two French pieces on the program, it may seem like a Francophile’s dream, but Rothenberg says really they were going for a “very entertaining, and elegant, and surprising opening night.”
Bon Appetit! is scheduled for 7 p.m. September 21 at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For more information, call 713-524-5050 or visit dacamera.com. $37.50 to $67.50.