Opera Philadelphia offers up a tasty treat to start the new year: Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appétit!, a scrumptious bagatelle that sets the art of French cooking to music. Filmed late last year by Houston Grand Opera, the 20-minute monodrama shows off the plush vocals and expert comic chops of star mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who effortlessly assumes the larger-than-life mien of Julia Child.
Hoiby (1926-2011), a renowned composer of art songs, wrote Bon Appétit! for Jean Stapleton—who, despite being best known as Edith Bunker on All in the Family, was a classically trained singer. The pair wrote Child to ask for inspiration and a recipe recommendation, and she responded that they “would probably want something with a lot of action in it.” She suggested bouillabaisse or chicken Marengo.
Instead, Hoiby and librettist Mark Shulgasser settled on chocolate cake, which certainly supplies the moving parts necessary to whip the action into operatic frenzy. “When you’re going to do a cake, you’ve got to have a battle plan,” Julia tells the audience, a swelling paraphrase of La Marseillaise underscoring her serious yet sensuous approach to cooking.
Barton barnstorms through the steps like a possessed general—tempering the chocolate, separating the eggs, and greasing the pan with, of course, a heartstopping amount of butter. Yet despite her precision, she fully projects Child’s elemental love of the craft, projecting the buoyancy that endeared her to generations of viewers through her public-access television show The French Chef.
An adept actor whom you could just as easily imagine headlining a primetime sitcom as a Wagner opera, Barton finds all the humor and pathos in Child’s outsize personality. She also highlights the fascinating contradictions of her subject’s biography—Le Cordon Bleu graduate and American housewife, serious authority and gregarious bon vivant—that made Child such a natural pop-culture personality. Occasionally, she’s outrageous, as when she lets red wine splash all over her face while indulging in a little cook’s tipple. But as Child herself sings: “Better too much than too little.”
Barton’s most effective acting comes through her voice, though. She often breaks a rich, formidable vocal line with a parlando joke that remains perfectly pitched. Hoiby understood how to blend the tautness often associated with classical music with a looser, more patterlike style to create the full portrait of Child. Barton understands how to deliver it perfectly.
Welcome to the kitchen
The North Carolina kitchen of codirectors Ryan and Tonya McKinny stands in for Child’s famous Cambridge, Massachusetts, home studio. The modern appliances may seem jarring at first, but once Barton pulls the viewer into the swirling world of Julia’s recipe, any lingering annoyance with anachronism fades. The directors nicely capture Barton’s intensely physical performance without being too obtrusive. Since Ryan McKinny is a respected baritone in his own right, he surely knows how to make a singer seem natural and well-scaled to the camera. To their immense credit, the result (available to stream for a suggested donation through January 15) feels like a polished short film rather than a live performance on tape.
Jonathan Easter provides demure piano accompaniment throughout, getting the job done without pulling focus from Barton’s star turn. And quite the star turn it is, as she channels Child, whom audiences around the world welcomed into their homes for more than five decades. We came to regard Child as a trusted friend—and with Bon Appétit! and Jamie Barton, we cannot help but do the same.
Image description: Opera singer Jamie Barton plays Julia Child, standing in a contemporary kitchen. She has a joyous expression and holds a big copper bowl full of white ingredients in one hand, and places the other hand on a KitchenAid standing mixer.
What, When, Where
Bon Appétit! By Lee Hoiby and Mark Shulgasser. Directed by Ryan McKinny and Tonya McKinny. Opera Philadelphia. Streaming on the Opera Philadelphia Channel through January 15, 2021 (free, donations suggested). Stream it at operaphila.tv.
Bon Appétit! is closed-captioned.