One of the best-loved opening scenes in opera, the beginning of Act One of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, revolves almost entirely around two things: hunger and extreme cold. As we enter the season of feasting that extends from Thanksgiving Day through Chinese New Year’s and beyond, it’s a good time to push ourselves back from the table and settle in for a closer look at the leading role food has played in opera, both as a prop and as a plot device.
In the opera just mentioned, it is Schaunard’s arrival with an armload of food and drink—and a pocketful of cash—that gets the party started; sweeping the roommates and their friends from the frost-bitten Parisian garret they call home, past the street vendors and jostling crowds of the Latin Quarter, to a warm table and a mouthwatering supper at the Café Momus. Sausage, it seems, is the starter course. The newcomer to the group, Mimi, shyly asks for crème caramel while the men opt for heavier fare: Turkey, lobster and roast venison, as well as an assortment of wines. We don’t know whether the group has enough means to pay for the bill but it hardly matters: after years of deprivation, they have no intention of paying what they owe—if they can possibly avoid it. And, as luck would have it, there’s a well-to-do suitor trailing after Musetta who was born to be the “fall guy.”
A grim feast of a different sort forms the climax to what is arguably Mozart’s greatest work for the stage, Don Giovanni. After having invited the stone statue of The Commendatore to join him for supper, Giovanni digs in without waiting for his guest’s arrival; ignoring the anxious entreaties of both his “wingman” Leporello, and his former lover, Donna Elvira. When The Commendatore makes his grand entrance, he makes it clear that a table laden with fine wines and delicacies is not his reason for coming: “We partake not of earthly banquets, who with heavenly food are fed.” After ordering Giovanni to repent his misspent life, The Commendatore seizes him by the hand and drags him down to hell.
In one of Rossini’s masterpieces, the comic villain, Mustafà, is convinced that in order to join an exclusive and exalted Italian society (the Pappataci), he is to eat, sleep, drink and enjoy himself, without allowing his attention to be diverted. The Turkish bey happily shoves food in his face, usually mass quantities of pasta, while the reunited lovers escape to a ship anchored nearby and the swift voyage home.
Food is both motivation and means of escape for the spunky children in Hansel & Gretel, based upon the fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm. These not-so-dutiful kids are sent into the woods to search for strawberries while their mother cries, literally, over spilt milk—the only nourishment they possess. Their father, a broom-maker, returns from a successful day at the market with a basket of food. He is alarmed to learn that his son and daughter have been sent deep into the forest where a witch lures children into cages in order to turn them into gingerbread. Eventually they stumble upon the witch’s cottage—all chocolate cream, plum cake, and Turkish Delight—and their nibbling results in their capture. However, before the witch can add Hansel and his sister to her over-stuffed cookie jar, the children push her into the oven, freeing the ranks of gingerbread children who came before them.
In the Dallas Opera’s new production of Georges Bizet’s Doctor Miracle, a young captain disguised as a chef tricks his lady love’s father into consenting to their marriage in a rather unusual fashion: he poisons him. Well, not really. Captain Silvio concocts a terrible tasting omelette that gets him (as the chef) promptly fired. He then announces that the nasty omelette was poisoned. Only Doctor Miracle can save them! Predictably, he does, when the father agrees to give him his lovely daughter’s hand in marriage.
I suppose you can guess the identity of Doctor Miracle, yes?
Feasts and feasting routinely form the background for moments of high drama in opera. Naturally, the contrast between the pleasures of a lively celebration and some horrifying turn of events is theatrically stark and effective, put to particular good use during the bel canto period of the early 19th century as we just saw in the Dallas Opera’s revival of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as in later works by Verdi (think Macbeth) and Pietro Mascagni (the rowdy tavern scene in Cavalleria rusticana).
One of the greatest and most tense dining room scenes in all of opera occurs in the second act of Puccini’s Tosca, set in the luxurious Roman apartments of the cruel Baron Scarpia, who expresses his philosophy in the line: “God created beauty and wine of various merit; I choose to taste all that I can of the heavenly produce.” The title character, Floria Tosca, arrives in search of her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, who is being tortured for information in the next room. Scarpia attempts to persuade the diva to give herself to him, in exchange for her lover’s life. However, the tables are turned when Tosca, armed with the Scarpia’s dinner knife, plunges it into his cold and calculating heart as the corrupt police chief attempts to take his prize.
Eating, drinking and feasting play an important role in comic opera, as well. From the opening scene of Bedrich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride to the farmhouse feast in The Elixir of Love to the hilarious ballroom sequence in Rossini’s cockeyed version of the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola—food and frivolity easily go hand-in-hand.
One of the most tossed-off, palate-teasing openings in all of opera occurs in Samuel Barber’s Vanessa (with text by Gian Carlo Menotti), as the title character’s niece plans a menu for an upcoming dinner that immediately sets an ultra-luxurious tone: grilled lobster with oyster-mushroom cream sauce, crawfish à la Bordelaise, stuffed duck with Savoie sauce (“Too many sauces,” Vanessa mutters), roasted pigeon, and for dessert: almond honey cake. Altogether, it’s enough to send you screaming for the Alka-Seltzer!
So, as you prepare the Thanksgiving turkey or your treasured family holiday recipes this season, remember the marvelous role of foods and feasting throughout opera and take a moment to give thanks for an art form that genuinely reflects the extraordinary diversity of the human experience, from the simple pleasures bestowed by a lowly plate of root vegetables and a glass of stout, to the highest aspirations of which Man is capable.
Check out the easy holiday recipe for Opera Cream Candy, and then let’s raise a glass—to fine food, to the season, to each other—and to opera!
Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media & PR
OPERA CREAM CANDY
By Diana Rattray
- 1 (8 oz.) cream cheese, room temperature
- 2 sticks butter or margarine
- 3 tsp. best quality vanilla
- 3 lb. powdered sugar
- Melted white chocolate or almond bark
Mix ingredients together and knead until well blended. Form into small balls and refrigerate for two hours. Dip in melted white chocolate and place on waxed paper until set. Refrigerate for several hours and then package for the freezer, to bring out for holiday occasions, or keep refrigerated and enjoy whenever you like! This would be a great “starter recipe” for the kids after attending a performance of the Dallas Opera’s Doctor Miracle.