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Bon Appétit! Julia Child’s chocolate cake recipe to try at home (and a delicious little opera by Lee Hoiby)

Many months ago my attention was drawn to a 25 minute, comic one-act opera monologue written for mezzo-soprano based on the words of American cooking personality Julia Child. The friend and colleague who sent me the music said he could imagine me singing the role, suggesting it would be a fun piece to perform at some point at our country house, Brycefield Estate. I found a performance of the opera on youtube sung by American mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, and agreed it looked like a lot of fun; a piece combining my love of singing and cooking. I’ve been trying to find the time to learn it ever since. Can you guess what my personal COVID lockdown goal was?

When the Coronavirus took hold last year my partner and I decided to live full time in Lovedale in the Hunter Valley. As singing engagements both in Australia and overseas were cancelled one by one, I realised I was going to have a lot of free time during 2020. We are lucky to have a lot of space on the property. I tended my vegetable and herb gardens and began spending many happy hours in the kitchen. My thoughts turned to learning Bon Appetit! by composer Lee Hoiby. I began researching the life of Julia Child and how the opera came to be. With so much time to spare, browsing through the acclaimed chef’s recipes was a real pleasure.

I always follow a recipe when I cook, although I definitely treat cooking as more like an art than a science; a bit more of this, a bit less of that. The overwhelming popularity of Julia Child came not just from her culinary expertise but from her matter-of-fact style and self-deprecating humour. She liked to experiment and she set out to demystify French cooking for an American audience. To quote from My Life in France, “Learn how to cook – try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”

I can say with certainty that learning Bon Appetit! the opera was fun! I don’t think I’ve ever had to imitate a celebrity figure before. The music is quite tricky, although, like most scores, it begins to make sense when you live with it for a while. The composer actually wrote Bon Appetit! for Jean Stapleton, who, despite being best known for her role as Edith Bunker on All In The Family was also a trained singer. When Julia Child was asked for recipe recommendations by the composer, she suggested “something with a lot of action.” The idea of a bouillabaisse or chicken marengo was considered but it was a chocolate cake that was settled on; the cake she made in Episode 228 of The French Chef which aired in 1961.

This recipe certainly supplies a lot of movement for the singer/actor. The hardest part of the learning process was definitely adding the ‘cooking’ or production component to the music. Fitting the required actions (beating egg whites, melting and tempering chocolate, greasing the pans and sifting flour) into the exact number of musical bars given was really something that required repeated rehearsal and continuous cleaning of the kitchen! As the libretto says, “when you’re going to do a cake, you’ve really got to have to have a battle plan.”

The rehearsal studio…

I am pleased to say that now we are back on the stage in 2021, performances of Bon Appetit! are up and running. Pianist Sharolyn Kimmorley AM and I have had more than a few laughs putting it all together. I’d like to say the outcome is predictable every time, but, like all good live theatre, there are always a few variations when you cook and especially when you cook and sing at the same time!

“Not as neat as it could be…” says Julia. Luckily is usually tastes good, despite appearances!

Our first pre-performance showing was held in the kitchen of Brycefield House as part of the second Brycefield Estate Music Festival on March 28th, 2021, and this was followed by a dinner show on April 20th at the Foghorn Brewery in Newcastle as part of The Food Festival. 

More on the Newcastle Food Festival can be found here.

We are pleased to announce that our next dinner show will be at the iconic Bennelong Restaurant at the Sydney Opera House at Bennelong Point, Circular Quay on July 21st, 2021. Click here for more details and to book a ticket.

Finally, here is the now-famous recipe for Le Gateau au Chocolat l’Eminence Brune for you to bake at home. It really is a “very delicate cake” and worth trying. The difference is you can take all the time you like!

Happy cooking and Bon Appétit! Here is the recipe.

 

A note from your singing teacher; staying motivated in the time of Coronavirus…

Dear singing students,

Staying motivated during the weeks and months ahead when you will not be able to meet face to face with your teachers and coaches will be a new challenge for us all.  Courses and study modules have come to an abrupt stop, rehearsals and performances have been postponed, lessons have been cancelled. 

Your goal posts have been seriously moved. No more summer school in Europe, no more chorus work, no more masterclasses or competitions to work towards, no more auditions, no more income, no sign of an end to ‘the crisis’ and, perhaps hardest of all, no more day to day connection with your colleagues.

What we do currently have an abundance of is time. Time can be both a blessing and a curse. Several students have expressed to me that more time means more worry, more frustration, more doubt, more negativity. I think we’re all experiencing some of this as we get used to ‘the new normal.’ 

We can also view our new time rich circumstances as a wonderful opportunity. Consider spending the next few weeks learning an operatic role, memorising a song cycle, putting together a short recital programme or getting future competition repertoire learnt.

To achieve this we’ll need to find a new routine, a new pattern of learning and a new level of self-accountability. We will need to draw on our reserves of willpower. With few real deadlines in the immediate future it can be difficult to continue to find the motivation to work in isolation.

I’ve put together a few ideas which, although not designed to be comprehensive, I hope might help you navigate these challenging times. Together we can stay professionally on target, remain mentally and vocally healthy and emerge fully prepared when these strange times are over.

Make a plan…

What are your goals during this period? It might help to put your ideas down on paper. Write down your dreams and inspirations so that if you ever find yourself lacking in motivation you can come back and reread this. Consider a personal ‘motivation’ board using words and pictures to inspire you.

How long will it take to learn the role, the song cycle, the audition pieces, the recital programme? Consider mapping out a timeline for yourself and setting goals at short and long intervals. When would you like to have the first recitative learnt? The first act? When would you like to have the role off the book?

What other family and work commitments will you need to work around in order to achieve your goal?

Think about creating a ‘personal statement’ for yourself, a bit like a business mission statement. This could be something like ‘I would like to have the role of ….. learned in two months time,’ ‘ I will work on my technique and breathing for 30 minutes every day,’ or ‘I will commit to an online lesson once a week.’

What will the benefits be when you achieve your goal? How will it make you feel?  How will it help your long term ambition?

Manage your time and stick to your strategy…

If possible, organise and create your own private work space.

I’ve often opened opera scores and thought ‘how on earth will I ever learn all this?’ or ‘where will I start?’ Commit to spending a certain amount of time each day to your work and try not to get distracted during this time. turn off technology and social media.

Consider devoting the same time each day to learning. Routine can help achieve goals.

Don’t procrastinate. Prioritise.

Work out who you need to help you reach your goal. Your teacher? A musical or language coach? When will you be checking in with these people? What exactly do you need from them?

Take the time to learn accurately. It’s very hard to unlearn mistakes.

Know when enough is enough. The brain can only cope with so much learning in one day. Take regular breaks and step away for other activities and rest.

Occasionally reset goals as you go along. Have confidence in your ability to be successful. Don’t give up.

Slowly develop your own method of doing things.

Congratulate yourself when tasks are achieved. Celebrate milestones.

Learning the role/the repertoire…

Choosing a score to work from…

Choose to learn or audition for a role which is within your current capabilities and which you think you might sing in the near future.

If you already have the job, find out which score the company is going to work from.  Differences can occur between scores in notation, rhythm, dynamics and text, so it pays to do the research first and learn the correct version. Scores sometimes have mistakes in them.

Speak to experienced singers, rehearsal pianists, coaches and conductors about choosing the best edition for your needs. 

Consider investing in quality voice/piano scores.

Do you prefer to work from an online score?

Which language will the opera be in?

Are there any traditional cuts? Will the conductor be incorporating these?

Which version of the opera will be used? (Wagner’s Tannhäuser has a Paris and a Dresden version).

Are there any key modifications to various arias?

If you are singing a concert Requiem or similar in Latin, which version of the Latin should you learn?

Listening…

Start listening to a variety of recordings.

Who are your favourite singers in the role/repertoire and why?

How do these singers approach recitative/arias/cadenzas/ornamentation?

What is it about their vocal expression and interpretation that you like?

Listen to the overall impact of the musical score, especially the orchestration.

Listen to different interpretations of tempi and dynamics.

Don’t try to imitate a particular singer; use what you like about their interpretation to inform your own performance

Mark up your score…

Highlight your line or use coloured tabs; find your own system.

Be careful not to miss any parts of the score!

Translation and Language…

One of the best investments for singers is that of language. The more you understand the grammar and words you are singing and that others are singing to you, the more convincing your performance will be. One day you might need to communicate with conductors, singers and teachers in a European language. Anything you do now to anticipate this will make your life easier later.

The language/libretto/poetry informs the emotion, intent and direction of your singing

Don’t rely on given translations as they are often misleading and incorrect. Do your own. Know what every word means. Write yourself a word for word translation and then something more general or poetic.

Read a synopsis.

Read the libretto.

Learn the pronunciation. 

Practice speaking the recitatives.

Speak the words through in rhythm.

Do all the above before you actually start singing.

Create your character…

Start with the libretto.

What do other characters say about your character?

Start reading anything relevant regarding history. Think of history as being linear. What else was going on in the world at the time? Art, literature, philosophy, inventions, architecture, politics?

Who are you?

What do you look like?

What are you feeling?

How might you move?

Who do you sing the aria to?

Are you alone on stage or is somebody listening/reacting?

What traditional props might your character use? Are you reading a letter, playing an instrument, holding a sword?

How would you like the audience/other characters to feel when you’ve finished the song/aria?

Are there gaps in the character’s history? Can you fill these in yourself?

Map out the emotional journey  of your character through the entire opera. How are they at the end as opposed to the beginning?

Might your character have any particular personality traits or quirks that you could incorporate into your acting?

Most directors are happy that a singer has thought about these things themselves regardless of their concept of the production. There is often very little or even no time to help singers with their character during production rehearsals.

Learning the notes…

Decide where you’re going to start and learn the notes.

Do you start with the arias (often easier as we are usually more familiar with the music), the recitatives (often take longest to learn as they are ‘wordy’) or the ensembles? 

Be particular with melody and rhythm. 

Think technically when you are learning as well as musically. If there is something particularly difficult in the score then return to your vocalises to practice exercises which will help, for example coloratura, large intervals, chromatic passages.

Consider getting a coach to record your line or the accompaniment if you have trouble doing this yourself

Memorisation…

Repetition, repetition, repetition.

Don’t overdo it in one session or one day. The brain can only cope with so much. 

Break things up into manageable chunks. 

Sleep on things. You’ll be surprised how much you will probably remember from yesterday’s practice.

Try recalling words at times during the day when you are not practicing like before sleep or on public transport.

Write out the text over and over if that helps you.

Identify musical and textual patterns.

Text notecards; some singers use these although I recommend getting rid of them before the first rehearsal.

I always know I have something well memorised when I can perform other tasks at the same time as singing the music: cooking, cleaning, gardening etc.

Production and movement really help with memory too. The brain links a certain movement or space with particular music.

Coaching and Technical Lessons…

At some point you will need to work on the role with a coach and a teacher.

Professional singers need both of these and should work with both regularly.

It’s also a good idea to get specialised language coachings if you need them.

Happy learning!

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