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Aurora Classical, a Philly group dedicated to making classical music more accessible, presented Bon Appétit!, an operatic tribute to Julia Child, in the 2017 Philly Fringe. Aurora revived that show for a livestreamed performance in 2020 from the FringeArts stage and a version of that stream, repackaged as “Bon Appétit!” By Julia Child and Lee Hoiby (During a Pandemic!), has been available on demand for the Fringe each year since. But re-airing the stream of a show is not always a good decision.
As theaters have reopened, I’m thrilled the Fringe Festival still includes streaming performances, which empower people who still can’t or won’t go to live shows to stay engaged in the arts. However, it’s painfully obvious that this version of Bon Appétit was performed in 2020. At the start of the performance, Susan Weinman, playing Julia Child, enters the stage draped in layers of PPE, which she must discard in order to be understood by her invisible audience. Patty McMahon, playing the silent sous chef, never discards her PPE. In 2020, this was a nod to our reality, but now, it comes across as dated and unfunny, a glimpse back at a time we would prefer not to return to, even though Covid-19 is still very much with us.
From screen to screen
Watching Bon Appétit on my sofa at home, I sort of felt like I was watching a video my mom took of one of my high-school plays. The picture seemed over-exposed, as if the cameras couldn’t adjust to the bright theatrical lighting, lending the performers an otherworldly orange glow.
But the biggest reason Bon Appétit doesn’t work well on the screen, oddly enough, is the concept itself. We are essentially watching an operatic version of an episode of Julia Child’s iconic public television show, The French Chef. The medium should translate easily enough from screen to screen, except the addition of opera, a form that’s far better consumed live, made the cognitive dissonance too loud. I can easily see how Bon Appétit could be delightful in person, but on video, it lacks dynamism.
More artistic license, please
One of the most challenging, if not outright confrontational, things about opera is that it frequently does not rhyme. Hearing opera sung in unrhymed English, especially, can take a while to acclimate to, especially when the words being sung were originally spoken in a voice, like Child’s, already so familiar to many of us.
Bon Appétit does have a lyricist, Mark Schulgasser, but from what I could tell in the pre-show discussion between him and Weinman, Schulgasser was largely collaging Child’s own words together rather than writing anything original. Child’s voice was a strong one and I understand the instinct to let her speak for herself, but the work might have been better if Schulgasser employed more artistic license.
Speaking of that pre-show discussion: it also feels very much like the first year of the pandemic, back when we were all still trying to figure out how Zoom works, and so starved for things to do that we were willing to watch two people discuss just about anything over teleconference. Usually, conversations like this happen after a performance, not before, so I initially worried I’d been sent the wrong link. Nope, it was the right link, and it was painful. Do yourselves a favor if you’re streaming Bon Appétit and fast-forward the 11 minutes or so that the interview lasts. Or, you know, skip the stream entirely.
What, When, Where
“Bon Appétit!” By Julia Child and Lee Hoiby (During a Pandemic!). Music by Lee Hoiby. Libretto by Mark Schulgasser, based on the words of Julia Child. Pay what you can. Streaming through October 2, 2022. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Bon Appétit is a streaming production, so it is accessible to anyone with a high-speed internet connection. The production is not closed-captioned.
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