29 November 2012

“Don’t Sing With Your Mouth Full”

by Daniel J. Wakin

[In the article below, Daniel Wakin, classical music reporter for the New York Times, describes some of the issues opera companies and singers cope with when there are scenes on stage that feature food and eating or drinking.  I’ve never been much of an opera fan, but we in theater do encounter some of the same problems, even when singing doesn’t enter into the mix.  Handling and eating or drinking food or beverages can offer unique challenges for both the performers and the stage crews, as you’ll read.

[Wakin’s article appeared in the “Dining” section of the Times on Wednesday, 9 May 2012.  The on-line edition of the article was revised to correct earlier versions which incorrectly identified the composer of the opera Tosca as Giacomo Puccini; it is Giuseppe Verdi.]

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 Café 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.

“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.”

Mr. 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 6 chickens, 3 turkeys, 2 pheasants, 1 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 Bohème,” 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 Café 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, roast venison, turkey, Rhine 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 and tragic death.

Opera companies have to deal with these meals and often provide real food. The Met’s 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’s “Salome.”)

Grocery shopping is done at the Fairway Market several blocks away on Broadway. 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 ahead of time 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 “Bohème” the Met used to order chicken from its cafeteria, but discovered that KFC was much cheaper.

Yes, much of this food gets eaten. While the practices of singers 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,” Mr. 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 Verdi’s “Tosca.” One of Mr. 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. Mr. Albergo helps lay out a spread of real pastry, provided by Rockland Bakery of Nanuet, N.Y.

Ms. 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, Ms. 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 broad upgrade of recent decades. Children sing with glee in Act 2 about the May Day feast:

Pink blancmange!
Seedy cake! Seedy cake! (with icing on)
Treacle tart!
Sausagey rolls!
Trifle in a great big bowl!
Chicken and ham!
Cheesy straws!

No such specifics are found in John Adams’s “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 American 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 “spongy bamboo shoots and egg-white consommé, 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.

[I never had to contend with eating and singing as the performers about whom Wakin writes have, but I have had to work with food on stage as an actor.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of cleanliness rather than performance issues.  I was doing a contemporary play about a group of college and post-college friends living together in a large house.  In one scene, I came into the living room with a cup and a coffee pot and I was supposed to pour myself a cup of coffee and drink it during the scene.  Simple enough.  Now, the play was part of a three-play rep, and we’d had a couple of days off while the other plays performed, so we had a run-through rehearsal before our performances picked up again.  During the regular rehearsal period, my coffee pot was filled with plain water, which was fine, and that’s what I expected this afternoon.  But when I poured the liquid from the pot into the cup, what I got was days-old brown liquid with thick green mold growing in it!  Well, of course, I wasn’t about to drink any of that, but what was worse was that it was gross enough looking to stop me in mid line.  Thank goodness it wasn’t a performance, of course—though I hope I’d have managed to do something in that case to have covered the glitch.  (It probably shouldn’t have been necessary to make the note, but from then on, one of the prop runner’s routine tasks was to check the coffee pot at preset to be sure it was clean and filled with fresh cold coffee.)

[Speaking of covering, one performance I was in required a collaborative effort during a meal scene to cover a missed entrance.  (I may have told this story before once or twice.  See, for instance, “Short Takes: Theater War Stories,” 6 December 2010 on ROT.)  I was acting in a production of Jean Anouilh’s Romeo and Jeannette, a family play in which one scene is dinner.  Part way into the scene one character has an entrance but the actress missed her cue, leaving us all stranded on stage.  The rest of the cast  just improvised an entire little domestic scene about preparing to sit down to dinner that Anouilh never wrote.   I recall it lasting several minutes, but it actually must have been much shorter.  No one in the audience, it seemed, had any idea we were making up a scene as we went along. 

[One food scene taught me a great lesson about my own acting.  I was in graduate school and my MFA class was doing a production of The Wood Demon, Chekhov’s early version of Uncle Vanya.  It was one of the first plays I did after starting to study acting seriously, having performed in college and in community theater as an amateur for several years.  Wood Demon starts with a long scene of a large banquet meal served outdoors with nearly the whole cast—Wood Demon has more characters than Uncle Vanya—around a huge table.  We’d carefully selected foods we could easily eat while speaking lines, with an eye also to food that wouldn’t congeal or go bad under the hot stage lights.  But what we couldn’t predict was where some of the place settings would end up once the scene got underway and actors moved glasses and plates around some as the action progressed.  Now, when I was an amateur, I could be flustered if things weren’t almost exactly the way we’d rehearsed them.  I was always afraid that I’d upset something or attract undue attention if I had to step out of the prescribed blocking.  At almost every performance or rehearsal of Wood Demon, though, something I was supposed to handle  was farther away than it was supposed to be, often in front of another actor.  I had learned to be confident enough in my own work—and to trust my fellow actors enough—simply to reach over, even stand up if necessary, and get what I needed . . . just as if I were a guy eating at a long table among friends and family!  No one noticed this little change in my stage work except my acting teacher, but I knew that I’d made a small but hugely significant breakthrough in acting technique.  For me, it was a little like an agoraphobe taking a step outside his apartment.

[Finally, I was working as a teacher and director in a middle school where the theater program was immensely important (I had many students whose parents were pros in the business, from soaps to the Yiddish stage).  I was directing my first full-length play at the school and we were doing Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.  (I know—who does that deeply philosophical play with 5th-, 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders?  Well, I didn’t select the script; it had been chosen before I was hired.  While many of the kids didn’t really understand the play—neither did some of the parents, I learned later—they did a terrific job anyway.)  My Henry, the central family’s son, was an 8th-grader and in one scene at the end of the play, he comes back home from war and digs a potato out of the fireplace coals and eats it ravenously.  Now, I’d very explicitly instructed the stage manager and prop crew—all students, of course—to be sure the potato every night was well-cooked, fresh, and cold.  Nonetheless, one night, the young actor bit into a raw potato that had been placed on the set—and he chewed it noisily and ate it.  Of course, I scolded the stage manager after the show to impress on her that this shouldn’t happen to the actor again—but Henry liked to play the tough guy and insisted it was perfectly cool, no problem at all!  (I insisted the student stage manager prepare the props the way she was supposed to anyway, irrespective of the actor’s bravado.  I had to teach her to do her job, didn’t I?—that was my job, after all.)]

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