Double-billed with Georges Bizet’s silly Dr. Miracle, Bon Appetit is the more delicious of the one-acts cooked up this month by Portland State University Opera. It’s an indisputable hoot about Julia Child making a real-life “gateau chocolat.” The show plays through Dec. 13 at PSU’s Lincoln Hall’s 84-seat Studio Theater, a small space to contain such a lot of laughs – but it works.
How can anyone not love and re-love the endearing French chef saying/singing, “I love a good dry wine with my chocolate!” as she nonchalantly slathers icing over her cake.
The gawky Child, known as much for bringing French cuisine to middle America as she is for dropping a roast on air and recommencing her recipe with aplomb, is easy to make fun of, but she’s not easy to do right. Mezzo-soprano Christine Meadows, longtime PSU opera director, channels Julia seamlessly from helmet hair and pearls (and a clean towel at her waist) to her lilting phrasing. Presenting her cake, she sings/yodels: “It is nicer than a soufflé because it doesn’t fall!” in a crescendo of exuberance. The audience howled.
Meadows juggles real butter and cream, pans, wine and esprit as she sings Lee Hoiby’s opera that premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1989. The late American composer based the libretto on two episodes of The French Chef, Child’s public TV cooking show that ran from 1963-1973. Mark Shulgasser reworked the episodes for the opera, and for this production Meadows and stage director Kristine McIntyre watched numerous hours of Child “performing” her unpredictable food magic on the cooking program. All the effort shows.
Meadows, whose prodigious memory allows her to sing, talk and bake for the mini-opera’s entire 20 minute duration, gets down and dirty in this role. If you sit in the front row, expect a few splatters of cream and batter. Julia is not a particularly anal-retentive cook. She admits “this can really be quite a mess!” as she tosses her used measuring cups and bowls on the stage. Though generally suited to more elegant roles, Meadows makes the most of Julia’s iconic “je ne said quoi” habits. She captures Child’s love of life and food.
Janet Coleman plays the difficult piano score and Sarah Mini and Zachary Gaumond hang in there as silent TV studio workers.
Child/Meadows does make a real cake and someone in the front row is the lucky recipient of the finished piece de resistance. (The rest of us eat cake from Fred Meyer in the lobby post-show). You can bet this show took a lot of flour, butter and preparation.
Speaking of the versatile Meadows, she directs the music in the first of the show’s two pieces, Georges Bizet’s Doctor Miracle, which Bizet wrote at 18 (based on a play by Richard Sheridan) and which premiered in 1857. Strains of Carmen? Not yet, but it’s certainly a spoof on the serious operas of the day. The piece is as much goofy theater as light opera.
This is four-person (not including the talented Colin Shepard at the piano) classic farce of mixed identities, thwarted lovers, jokes on the father/mayor (sung by baritone Darian Hutchinson, who held the whole piece together), and a perhaps-poisoned omelet. The omelet takes 11 minutes from serving to eating. This scene is very funny.
Alexander Trull, who plays Laurette’s lover, Silvio, as well as the snake-oil doctor and a one-eyed servant, stole the show with his terrific timing and tenor. Madison Howard played the lovely spoiled Laurette with the difficult soprano part, and Emily Skeen performed Veronique, the slightly befuddled mother and wife. Stage director Brenda Nuckton added some funny dialogue along the way to keep things moving.
Bon Appetit and Dr. Miracle were produced with a minimum of props, fanfare, cast and instrumentation. But they were a blast of French-scented fresh air and as far away from stodgy opera as Bizet – or even the free-spirited Julia – could have hoped to get.
The operas play at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10 and 11 and at 2 p.m. Dec. 13. Tickets: $24 for the general public; $17 for students and PSU faculty, through the PSU box office or by calling 503-725-3307.
Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She pursues poetry and photography and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools. She once interviewed Julia Child.