Opera, of all the art forms, is singularly associated with food, whether because of the appetites of well-girthed singers or the sensual pleasures celebrated in its music.
Hansel and Gretel stuff pastries into their mouths, topping them off with toasted gingerbread witch. Leporello pours out a fine Marzemino wine from northern Italy for Don Giovanni, then nibbles at a piece of pheasant. Schaunard calls for Rhine wine, roast venison and dressed lobster for his fellow Puccinian Bohemians at the Cafe Momus in Paris.
And that’s just a sample of this season’s menu at the Metropolitan Opera.
Opera, of all the art forms, is singularly associated with food, whether because of the appetites of well-girthed singers or the sensual pleasures celebrated in its rich ragout of music, emotion and stagecraft.
Just a few nights at any opera house will drive this home. Hardly a performance goes by without some reference to a meal, enough so that cookbooks and even scholarly articles have been devoted to the subject. Opera luminaries have dishes named after them, like peach Melba and Melba toast, inspired by the Australian soprano Nellie Melba. The Met even has a backstage kitchen for meeting the culinary demands of librettos, and singers regularly face the challenge of timing bites between musical phrases.
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“Every single opera, at least if it doesn’t refer to food, it refers to some sort of passion, and that’s one of the things people relate to,” the soprano Carol Vaness said. “For even Wagner, it’s got that ‘food of the gods’ feeling to it.”
David Anchel, a former opera singer, thinks there may be an element of oral fixation to the phenomenon: food goes in the mouth, and song comes out of it. But opera’s foodiness, he believes, comes mainly from something more basic. “Opera is about life,” he said. “How could you describe people’s lives without having them eat? It’s a very passionate thing, often.”
Anchel is well qualified to explain the connection. A frequent opera-going companion of mine and one of the best nonprofessional cooks I know, he sang with many small companies, briefly ran a catering business and found a ready supply of cookbooks in the bookstores where he used to work. Years ago he even proposed (unsuccessfully) a PBS series based on opera meals, in which he would sing scenes and cook dishes that might have been served in them. “I could be the operatic chef,” he said.
That fascination with the crossroads of food and music began 30 years ago when he and his wife, Julia Heyer, were young singers and would invite colleagues for parties that started with opera readings. “After we sang through the opera I would cook a meal” in its style, Anchel said. “I really thought this was a way to understand better what the characters were all about, if I knew exactly what they were eating.”
Food is so central to the operas of Giuseppe Verdi that the University of Notre Dame musicologist Pierpaolo Polzonetti has written papers on the subject. He has come up with what he calls the laws of “gastromusicology” to explain what food can signify in opera.
“The first law is that no meal can be sad,” Polzonetti said. “No matter what, when people eat, people seem to be happy, even if something bad is going to happen.” Other laws hold that meals show social cohesion, and that the presence of food or drink “excludes immediate catastrophe” (except, as in operas like “Simon Boccanegra,” when poison is involved).
The title character of Verdi’s “Falstaff” is one of the great operatic eaters. His bill at the Garter Inn, as he recounts at the opera’s opening, is for six chickens, three turkeys, two pheasants, one anchovy and 30 bottles of sherry. In “Macbeth,” Verdi prescribes a “sumptuously prepared feast” for the banquet scene in which Banquo’s ghost appears.
Another Italian, Puccini, larded his operas with meals — particularly “La Boheme,” a story of starving artists in 19th-century Paris.
In their chilly garret on Christmas Eve, Rodolfo, Schaunard, Colline and Marcello dine on a cold roast, Bordeaux and pastry. Later, outside the Cafe Momus in the Latin Quarter, vendors hawk an effusion of Parisian street food: oranges, dates, hot chestnuts, nougat, whipped cream, candies, fruit tarts, coconut milk, carrots, trout and plums from Tours. At a table, the bohemians order sausage, venison, turkey, wine and lobster. They also eat “a poem” of a chicken, as Colline sings, and stew — a sumptuous evening in contrast to their friend Mimi’s consumptive death.
Opera companies have to deal with these meals and often provide real food. The Met has a fully functional kitchen inside its room for small props, equipped with a Kenmore refrigerator, Corian countertops and a pot of rosemary that Mime uses for his potion in the current production of Wagner’s “Siegfried.” (Hanging in the prop room are two unappetizing fake severed heads belonging to John the Baptist in Strauss’ “Salome.”)
Grocery shopping is done at the nearby Fairway Market. Michael Albergo, a prop man, prepares much of the food, taking heed of gluten or dairy intolerance among the chorus and singers. He cooks chickens in a convection microwave, and cuts them up to make it easier for a singer to rip off a drumstick.
“If there is going to be the ubiquitous opera chicken, I would prefer it to have been cooked in the last 45 minutes rather than the last 45 days,” said Thomas Hampson, the baritone. As Don Giovanni, “I remember once getting a piece of chicken that really was roadkill,” he said. “I finally found a handkerchief and relieved myself of it.”
Sometimes prop managers prefer precooked food. For “Boheme” the prop room used to order chicken from its cafeteria, but discovered that KFC was much cheaper.
Yes, much of this food gets eaten. While singers’ practices differ widely, a surprising number chow down on the props. Some do so for dramatic reasons. “When you’re faking your way through it,” said Kate Lindsey, a mezzo-soprano, “people can see through that action.”
Others are simply hungry. Singers generally eat lightly before a performance, and stage food is a handy snack, especially three hours into an opera.
Eating onstage has its perils. Singers have to worry about slipping on fallen food or sullying expensive costumes, and must make sure they have swallowed before opening their mouths to sing. “You always have to time yourself as far as ‘What can I consume between lines?’ ” said Richard Paul Fink, a baritone. “Can I have a full drink and a swallow? Can I consume this apple?”
It is standard for singers to make requests, especially for wine stand-ins. Favorites are flat soda (to prevent burping while singing), iced tea, Snapple and apple juice. The soprano Patricia Racette says she prefers watered-down lemon-lime Gatorade because it delivers a boost of sugar and electrolytes, and keeps her mouth moist.
The bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, playing Leporello in the Met’s recent “Don Giovanni,” asked for vegetable sausage, said James Blumenfeld, the Met property master. “It was the most disgusting thing I ever smelled,” Blumenfeld said. He added that the bass-baritone James Morris is known for preferring bananas when he is playing Scarpia in the fatal meal scene of Puccini’s “Tosca.”
One of Albergo’s biggest jobs is Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.” The witch in the tale has invited the unsuspecting and hungry siblings into her house for a good fattening up before consumption. She tempts them with apple tarts, meringues, chocolate mousse, Black Forest cake, rice pudding, creamy Swiss rolls and mountains of profiteroles. Albergo helps lay out a spread of real pastry, provided by Rockland Bakery of Nanuet, N.Y.
Lindsey, who played Hansel this season, said she avoided swallowing a lot of the pastry because dairy products create phlegm and can make it difficult to sing. “I developed a technique where I looked like I was eating, but smeared a lot of it all over my face,” she said. While pretending to drink milk, she learned to breathe out through her nose to avoid inhaling it.
And it is not just leading singers who indulge onstage. At a 2010 production of Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring” at the Santa Fe Opera, Lindsey, who was singing the role of Nancy, said she was amazed at how many extras and cast members were grabbing the food, not all of it real. “You had to watch out because there was fake ham,” she said. “You could end up eating plastic.”
“Herring,” set in a Suffolk market town in 1900, provides a fairly specific menu of English cuisine before its recent upgrade. Children sing with glee in Act 2 about the May Day feast:
Seedy cake! Seedy cake! (with icing on)
Trifle in a great big bowl!
No such specifics are found in John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” which features one of the best-known feasts of modern opera, the banquet scene in which the character Chou En-lai and the U.S. president toast each other during Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit in 1972.
But the historical nature of the subject would have made the details easy to provide. The Nixon Foundation has the official menu, which includes “shark’s fin in three shreds, fried and stewed prawns, mushrooms and mustard green and steamed chicken with coconut, almond junket, pastries, fruits.”
Maybe all that was too hard to sing.
LOBSTER A L’ARMORICAINE
A dish befitting “La Boheme,” adapted from “Chez Maxim’s: Secrets and Recipes from the World’s Most Famous Restaurant,” by the Countess of Toulouse-Lautrec
Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
3 lobsters, about 3 pounds each
1/2 cup olive oil
6 tablespoons butter
6 shallots, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups dry white wine
1 cup fish fumet or clam broth
1 cup cognac
6 medium tomatoes, peeled, cored and diced
1/2 cup passata, tomato purée or tomato sauce
2 whole sprigs plus 1 teaspoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and black pepper
Finely chopped chervil and tarragon, for garnish
1. Prepare the lobsters by placing the blade of a sharp, heavy knife or cleaver crosswise against the back of the head, and using a kitchen mallet to strike the top of the blade, driving it down. Remove the claws and knuckles, separate them, and crack them with the mallet. Twist tails from the bodies. Cut each tail crosswise into four pieces, and set aside. Cut each lobster body in half lengthwise; remove and reserve the greenish-gray tomalley and any roe. Rinse the bodies under cool water and set aside.
2. Place a large casserole or other wide, deep pan over medium heat. Add the oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the pieces of lobster tail and the knuckles, and stir until the shells are red, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a large plate. Add the claws and lobster bodies, and stir again until red, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to the plate and allow to cool.
3. Remove the lobster meat from the claws, knuckles and tail pieces, and set aside. In a cup combine 2 tablespoons of butter with the reserved tomalley or roe, and mash to a paste; set aside.
4. Drain the butter and oil from the pan and return the pan to medium heat. Return the lobster bodies to the pan. Add the shallots, garlic and cayenne pepper. Pour in the wine, fish fumet or clam broth, and cognac. Add tomatoes, passata or tomato purée or sauce, and the whole sprigs of parsley. Add the reserved butter-tomalley paste. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.
5. Warm a serving dish. Pour the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean saucepan, discarding shells and solids. Return sauce to high heat and boil until reduced by two-thirds. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add reserved lobster meat to the sauce and heat just until thoroughly hot.
6. Remove pan from heat. Arrange the pieces of lobster meat in the serving dish. Stir the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, bit by bit, into the sauce. Pour the sauce over the lobster, and garnish with the finely chopped parsley, chervil and tarragon. If desired, serve with rice.