Julia Child is one of the best-known and most loved personalities of our era. As a chef, through her books and television cooking shows, she taught the world how to cook; first French cuisine and later everything from a humble meatloaf to extraordinarily complex confections. She was also a spy. During WWII, she was top secret researcher working directly for the head of OSS (forerunner of the CIA), General William J. Donovan himself.
She was unmistakable: tall and gangly, with a voice and way of speaking that was instantly recognized and easily imitated, even by those of us who cannot "do" voices. The ultimate impersonation of her was done on December 9, 1978 on Saturday Night Live by Dan Aykroyd, a comedy gem that Child reportedly adored. (See video below.)
Another very funny take on our favorite French chef was presented by The Dallas Opera on Feb. 9 in the Demonstration Kitchen at the Dallas Farmer's Market. Unlike Meryl Streep's amazingly dead-on impersonation in the movie Julie and Julia, Susan Nicely, a rubber-faced mezzo-soprano, makes no attempt to look like Child. First of all, Child was 6'2" while Nicely tops out (I'm guessing here) a foot shorter. However, with the magic of opera and her own acting ability, she transformed herself into the famous chef right before our eyes.
The vehicle for this magic was Lee Hoiby's Bon Appétit!, a 30-minute and highly portable one-woman opera based on a libretto that his partner Mark Shulgasser transcribed from two episodes of Child's The French Chef in the 1970s. In this clever and witty setting, which debuted in 1989 and was written for Jean Stapleton, the master chef teaches us how to make a classic French chocolate cake (le gâteau au chocolat l'éminence brune).
Saying that "chocolate is much more complicated than any of us suspect," she launches into the task with gusto. At one point while energetically whipping egg whites, she almost has a stroke in the process. Cake mix flies in all directions and then she drops the pan filled with the batter on the counter—hard—just "to settle things." She guzzles wine until she falls asleep during a commercial break. And, somehow, a respectable-looking cake is magically produced.
Child ended her last book, My Life in France, this way: "...thinking back on it now reminds that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite—toujours bon appétit!"
We couldn't agree more.
Bon Appétit! and Nicely's excellent performance of it was overwhelmingly received by the audience. A number of patrons asked "Who is Lee Hoiby and why have we never heard of him?"
Well, here is the answer. Hoiby was one of the great opera composers of modern times and it is absolutely shameful that his marvelous theatrical works do not grace the stage of every opera company in the world. The composer was unfairly maligned for writing in a tonal style during the era of wild experimentation and dissonance. When Hoiby died on March 28, 2011, at age 85 in New York City from metastatic melanoma, there was barely a blip. (He is survived by Shulgasser.) Now that the pendulum has swung back the other way and operas such as Jake Heggie's highly tonal Moby-Dick take the opera world by a storm, it is time to say a big mea culpa to Hoiby and get his stuff on the stage.
Now, about that commercial that ran during Child's broadcast. It starred none other than the ever-dapper and debonair Jonathan Pell, giving a most attractive infomercial about the spring offerings of the Dallas Opera: Puccini's Turandot and Dominick Argento's evocative opera The Aspern Papers, based on the Henry James novella, and starring international superstar mezzo soprano Susan Graham.
And we'll welcome more extra programming like the scrumptious Bon Appétit!
◊ Go here to see our video interview with Susan Nicely.
◊ And here is that famous SNL skit with Dan Aykroyd: