Thursday, November 2, 2017

Let There Be Cake!

Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appétit! A Delicious Opera
Shelter Studios
September 15, 2017

Melissa Collom charms as the wonderful and slightly wacky Julia Child
On an unseasonably hot mid-September afternoon, New York-based mezzo-soprano Melissa Collom invited a select group to partake of a special performance of Bon Appétit! A Delicious Opera by the late, great Lee Hoiby. It was proposed as a kind of reception of sorts with champagne and, of course, there would be cake, she promised. What more can you ask for?

Race against the machine: And the winner is?
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Collom has been known to take on unusual and inventive projects, like her series of aria music videos, and this little initiative is no exception. Bon Appétit! is the only opera I am aware of that doubles over, quite literally, as a recipe. 

In Collom’s agile hands it becomes a veritable pop-up mini-opera: you can book it for events, school programs and even bring it into your own home to impress, entertain and instruct your friends.

In Bon Appétit! composer Lee Hoiby has set to music an episode of Julia Child’s historic cooking show in which she makes her favorite chocolate cake, or gateau au chocolat. “It’s a very special, two-pan cake,” we are told in Julia’s inimitable homely sophisticate way.

The whole episode is there, including all of Child’s signature dry humor. She cracks jokes in passing: discouraging us from going out to play croquet while the chocolate is melting over a low flame. Oh, the temptation! Or bragging about having a self-cleaning kitchen when she taps the excess flour from her buttered pan out onto the floor. It’s only funny in that uncanny Julia Child’s kind of way, but it’s a hoot when sung as effervescently as Collom does.

Some lucky guests get to help prep the ingredients
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
When she gets ready to mount the egg whites, she wistfully decides to challenge her Kitchen-Aid mixer to a race. Why race her machine? Because she feels like it! And she is sure she will win because, well, she’s bigger. Absurd! But so much ridiculous fun. With his elegantly playful yet delightfully wicked sense of humor, Hoiby left it all in there – all of her quirks and idiosyncrasies. It serves as a reminder of just what a nut Julia Child was.

The penthouse at Shelter Studios
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
The original is scored for piano, strings and woodwinds, but Collom performed the piece in a stripped down setting for solo piano that more than sufficiently creates the atmosphere and the mood of a lively live television studio broadcast. An energetic Matt Lobaugh accompanied her on the piano with bravado and pizzazz.

From the moment the piano kicked into the opening bars, smiles spread across the faces of everyone in the room. It presents the kind of steady euphoria in a show that you never want to end. The texture of the music reveals the savor of an impressionistic Debussy and the succor of a more assertive Ravel. The piece is all frothy culinary delight with flamboyant bubbles and a fluid, flowing beauty runs through the whole thing. It’s genius and joyful, informative and entertaining – a real crowd pleaser.

The chef in her self-cleaning kitchen
Photo credit: Melissa Collom
There was nothing make believe about Melissa Collom’s mise-en-scène. She had all the ingredients prepped and ready to go, just like a regular cooking show. As the audience arrived for our special afternoon performance Melissa was already there, more or less in character giving tours of her “set.” This is the part that you can imagine would even be very kid friendly. Some lucky guests even got to try their hand at mounting the egg whites that would be used in the show.

It was clear throughout that Melissa is just as comfortable in the kitchen whipping up tasty treats as she is on the opera stage or acting in front of a camera. She handled the inevitable, foreseen slip ups with the kind of style and grace that were characteristic of her source material and so flawlessly incorporated them into the general pace of the piece that they seemed to be an integral part of it. There is nothing more exhilarating than a little controlled chaos.

And the beauty of it is that you actually learn a few things along the way. The fact that egg whites mounted in a copper bowl hold up longer than in glass is something I never knew but will now never forget. Melissa Collom’s boisterous yet stately incarnation of the legendary Julia Child has indelibly etched it musically into my mind.

– Lui

She said: "Let there be cake!" And there was cake!

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