How to explain the sort-of-opera “Bon Appetit!” which is coming to Charlotte for two performances Feb. 22-23?
We’ll try: The stage is the demonstration kitchen at Johnson & Wales University, and the script is …a recipe. It’s a single recipe for a chocolate cake, taken from an episode of Julia Child’s classic TV show, “The French Chef,” with mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely doing a parody of Child.
“It’s not really a cooking show and it’s not really an opera,” says Nicely, who lives in a small town outside Atlanta when she’s not traveling to perform. “It’s a hybrid of the two. This would be a great first exposure to opera. It’s just very funny and very campy.”
“Bon Appetit” was written by the late Lee Hoiby in 1989 as an opera monologue for actress Jean Stapleton, who actually was a trained singer. The 30-minute show follows Child through the making of a French-style cake. It doesn’t have a plot in the sense of highs, lows and dramatic tension, unless you worry a lot about falling cakes and flying icing.
The really crazy thing? Nicely doesn’t cook.
“No! You want to talk to my husband? He can verify that. I’m a lousy cook. I really admire and respect people who can cook. It’s a craft and an art, and you have to have a certain level of talent.”
The real drama, for her, is in the egg white moment: She has to separate and beat egg whites. In the moment of truth, she has to turn the copper bowl of beaten egg whites upside down.
“I don’t have to act in that moment,” she says. “I’m genuinely terrified.”
There’s stage magic to it, of course. Just like on Child’s real show, some things are made in advance. The cake layers Nicely decorates are made ahead from a mix: “People come up and want to eat that cake – they think it’s the actual recipe. It’s not a fine French cake!”
“Bon Appetit!” has been performed by a number of singers in different settings, but Nicely has sort of made a trademark of it. She’s done it in the houses of opera patrons, in a farmer’s market, in kitchen supply stores while customers wandered by. She discovered it when Chicago Opera Theater needed a short opener for an evening of one-act operas.
“I completely fell in love,” she says. “I have a blast. I don’t really do an impersonation (of Julia Child), more a loving homage. Do you know what Julia Child looked like? Well, I’m a little teapot, short and stout. I’m really, really short.” Child was legendary for her height – 6-foot-2.
There is one detail of Nicely’s costume that’s exactly like Child, though. When Nicely performed it near Santa Barbara, where Child died in 2004, the former mayor, who knew Child, came up afterward.
“She said Julia would have loved it. She loved laughing at herself. She also gave me this little insight. I was in black flats, so she said, ‘Do you realize when Julia cooked, she always wore red sneakers?’ Now, I always have those red sneakers on when I do it.”
Want to go?
▪ “Bon Appetit!” will be put on by Opera Carolina at Johnson & Wales University, 801 W. Trade St.
▪ Times: 7 p.m. Feb. 22 and 23.
▪ Tickets: $25, all general admission: carolinatix.org or call 704-332-7177, extension 113.