Decadence at DMMO: Bon Appetit!Review
This summer Des Moines Metro Opera partnered with the Iowa Culinary Institute to create a full operatic dining experience in celebration of Julia Child and Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appétit! The culinary students had studied and prepared French cuisine, allowing the guests to indulge their appetites as they enjoyed the theatrical performance. The audience could literally have their cake and eat it too!
The evening began with champagne, hors d’oeuvres, and culinary-themed cabaret songs performed by four of the opera’s apprentice artists: Quinn Bernegger, Catherine Goode, Robert Gerold, and Joyner Horn. The musical selections, although somewhat difficult to hear over the buzz of the crowd, kicked off the evening with a charming, lighthearted atmosphere that paired perfectly with the bubbly drinks.
The effect was familiar kitsch, just the right touch of humor and reverence.
Once the guests’ culinary and musical appetites were sufficiently whetted, dinner was served. The crowd moved to the performance space, the institute’s main atrium transformed by scenic designer Adam Crinson and lighting designer Nate Wheatley into a colorful cooking show set. The signature blue and yellow kitchen was cheerful and nostalgic, and in combination with Heather Lesieur’s retro costumes and Sarah Norton’s hair and make up design, it instantly encapsulated the 1960s in America. The effect was familiar kitsch, just the right touch of humor and reverence.
As the audience dined, the apprentice artists kept the culinary themed musical entertainment going with Leonard Bernstein’s La Bonne Cuisine. These four recipes in art song form were delightful, each singer wandering between tables as they performed and brandishing comedic props (most notably a rubber chicken).
It was obvious that Castle had watched Child’s cooking shows obsessively in preparation for the role.
Once the guests had finished their main dinner course, the apprentice artists emerged once again as the television production crew. They kept the theatrical energy going as they prepped the set for the chef’s arrival, clipboards and headsets in tow. The audience’s anticipation was at such a high level that you would have thought that the real Julia Child was about to make an appearance.
Finally the musical main course had arrived, and Joyce Castle took the stage. Castle was magnetic from the moment she stepped onto the set, convincingly embodying the lovable persona of Julia Child. It was obvious that Castle had watched Child’s cooking shows obsessively in preparation for the role, because she captured the chef’s physical and vocal mannerisms to perfection. Hoiby’s music further illustrated Julia Child’s vocal tones and quirks by writing them into the melodies themselves. The libretto was adapted from the chef’s own words, so it doesn’t get more authentic than that!
A decadent finish to a decadent evening.
Pianist Elden Little was the accompanying backbone of the entire evening, performing each of the cabaret numbers and Bernstein’s songs with expertise and finesse. His partnership with Joyce Castle was an equal collaboration between artists, crucial to making Hoiby’s opera shine. When the singer is busy navigating the logistics of making a chocolate cake live onstage, the musical foundation has to be rock solid, and the two musicians never faltered amid the culinary chaos.
Director Nathan Troup’s staging added to the humorous twinkle of Julia Child’s personality with subtle comedic stunts. Joyce Castle would toss dirty bowls over her shoulder, a crouching actor behind the counter catching them and not so surreptitiously stashing them in the sink. The audience also enjoyed Castle’s antics, chuckling as she took breaks to drink some wine and applauding when she held a bowl of whipped egg whites over her head. This opera is unique precisely because the singer cannot fake anything. Castle must execute all the steps of Child’s recipe live. She has to deliver a stellar performance all around - vocal, dramatic, and culinary. Talk about a triple threat!
Hoiby’s opera is short and sweet, only about twenty minutes long, so Des Moines Metro Opera’s decision to incorporate it into a larger experience was a smart choice.
At the end of the performance, the audience was served the very chocolate cake depicted in the opera, bringing the experience full circle. A decadent finish to a decadent evening.
The performance I attended was also live streamed by Iowa Public Television, an appropriate tie-in since Julia Child’s shows have been a revered presence on public television for decades. You can watch the entire broadcast of the opera on the Iowa Public Television website. If you want to enjoy some cake with it, you’ll have to try the recipe yourself, I’m afraid.
As someone who is already addicted to cooking shows, I must say that I would love to see more musical adaptations of them. (We need a Great British Baking Opera as soon as possible!) Hoiby’s opera is short and sweet, only about twenty minutes long, so Des Moines Metro Opera’s decision to incorporate it into a larger experience was a smart choice. This first collaboration between Des Moines Metro Opera and the Iowa Culinary Institute was a clear success, and I hope that it will not be the last. Bon Appétit! explored all the senses, a visual and musical celebration of a beloved chef and the joy she brought to the American culinary world.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m suddenly in the mood for some chocolate cake…