Deborah Humble

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.

 

Backstage Banter…a behind the scenes look at the Melbourne ‘Ring Cycle.’

IMG_9245She sashays down the corridor, a sideways glance in the mirror confirming that her spectacularly bejewelled, sequinned costume and feathered headdress is perfectly in place. Two more silver shoed, fish net clad beauties appear alongside immediately conjuring up visions of the Moulin Rouge. But we’re not in Paris. And the girls aren’t dancers. They’re opera singers backstage at the State Theatre in Melbourne, preparing for performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It’s a snapshot of everyday backstage life most patrons will never see.

In the corner the Woodbird from Siegfried sews halloween costumes and a chorus member in a navy blue laboratory coat scans the internet for news on the Sydney bushfires. A soprano in a gold evening gown is knitting with her feet up. Two dashingly clad gentlemen walk past dressed appropriately for Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival. They are mates, laughing and joking together, but they are also characters in Das Rheingold. In a few minutes time one of them will kill the other on stage in Scene Four.

An announcement over the tannoi requires that I make my way to the wigs and make-up room. It’s time to put in my ‘zombie’ contact lenses for my blind entrance as the Earth Mother Erda. The thick white lenses totally startle my colleagues who are seeing them for the first time. photo-4“Oh my God that’s really creepy,” laughs one nervously. I turn around and someone’s baby bursts into tears. Only a beautiful Rheinmaiden can make him smile again. He’s young but obviously already aesthetically inclined. Hopefully Wotan won’t react the same way on his conjugal visit and Brunnhilde will actually make an appearance in Die Walkuere.

0_450_640_0_70_http---i.haymarket.net.au-Galleries-20131119101252_The_Melbourne_Ring_Cycle_2013_1680Next day I get to try on my Chanel inspired suit for the first time. I look very sensible in beige tweed and pearl earrings, a cross between Angela Merkel, Maggie Thatcher and a high school head mistress. I try not to be envious of the tiara, diamante jewellery, dainty slippers and frothy wedding dress carefully laid out on my colleague’s dressing table, reminding myself that both Angela and Maggie would probably turn up their noses at the concept of such frippery. It’s hard not to be totally jealous though when your own props include a blind cane and a wheelchair. Erda’s all encompassing knowledge and wisdom should provide some consolation, although by the end of this particular rehearsal even that will be lost. During the following scene the director calls out from the stalls. “Wotan, you are a bit close to Erda. Try taking a step back and see how that looks.” The man with whom I have had many on stage children whispers in my ear. “It’s the story of my life. I am always getting too close to the ladies.”

photo-8Another day the Valkyries stand side stage while a man from the technical crew inspects our safety harnesses ready for our vertiginous entrance. It’s somewhat embarrasisng the first time as we need to pull down our trousers which involves showing him much more than i imagine he wants to see. But he has an important job and one quickly gets used to displaying the day’s chosen underwear to a complete stranger. We get onto our swings, clip ourselves on and as we are about to fly away one of the 100 or so volunteers who is dressed like a 1950’s housewife approaches me. “Do you remember me Deborah? You taught me singing years ago.” the-melbourne-ring-cycle-opera-australia-2013-die-walkure-the-valkyriesI quip that I can’t have done a very good job if she’s a volunteer. She replies with good humour “Don’t worry, I’ve got a sensible job.” Good point. As we disappear up to our starting positions a Valkyrie colleague sings out “Ho jo to ho, it’s off to work we go.” The seven dwarves never had a day’s work like this I think. The first time up there is pretty scary. It’s difficult to see the conductor four stories up and with your eyes squeezed tightly shut. My first line comes out with a vibrato that is, well, rather shaky.

More interesting characters continue to appear throughout the rehearsal process: a trio of seamstresses in German inspired footwear that makes me feel slightly better about my hiking boots. There’s a naval officer and someone who looks like they are off to play a game of tennis. Is that a used car salesman I see? Wotan’s nagging wife, another lucky mezzo-soprano in beige, appears with a dead animal slung over one shoulder. We console each other over our lack of glamour, happy at least not to be lone members of the beige brigade. An elderly Erda double gives me a view of things to come in about forty years. “Does my bum look big in this?” asks a soprano as she walks past wearing a white velour tracksuit about to do an on stage workout. I can’t answer because I am too busy eating the homemade cookies kindly delivered to the dressing rooms by another cast member. At this precise moment a member of wardrobe staff saunters by. “Careful Miss Deborah,” he says, “we have enough to do without elasticising your trousers.”

Other sights to behold include numerous chorus members and volunteers roaming the corridors in bathing suits with gold streamers stuffed into strategic hiding places (these will later appear as the Rheingold). Brides, bridesmaids and wedding guests are on their way to what appears to be a colourful celebration. Someone appears to be badly injured and covered in fake blood. There’s a girl in a fur coat and a couple of men in woollies obviously off on a hunting trip. A one eyed person is off to put on a long, white wig and some dark glasses. Coloured feathers and silver leotards are everywhere as are factory workers in fetching white caps. Side stage it’s a veritable zoo and difficult not to get up close and personal with all the animals. There’s a Tasmanian tiger, a giraffe, a gazelle, a warthog and many other beasts of burden. Birds hanging from the ceiling look disturbingly lifelike. Grane the horse seems strangely inert there in the dark and I can’t help but give her a consoling pat.

photo-11Dressers and wardrobe staff are frantically busy. They make cups of tea, do emergency repairs, collect washing, replace laddered tights and then get into the spirit of things by deciding to have a homemade hat making day in honour of Melbourne Cup. There is a hat featuring pins and needles and my favourite is a bicycle surrounded by a ring made out of metal coathangers. A RIng Cycle. Yes, there can be a lot of waiting around in this saga and it’s important to fill in the time backstage. Going to the toilet at least thirty times before and during a performance fills in a bit of time. So does torturing yourself by listening to Christa Ludwig’s recording of Waltraute in Die Goetterdaemmerung five minutes before you do it yourself. Writing blogs in the five hour break between appearing onstage and taking a curtain call is another favourite pastime.

Eventually Christmas decorations appear in the wardrobe room. Apparently it’s that time of year again although it’s hard to tell what’s going on in the real world down here in the dark bowels of the theatre. But hey, who needs tinsel, coloured Christmas tree baubles and traditional carols when we have all of this going on?

– All characters are fictional and bear absolutely no resemblance to anyone living

– Official photos by Jeff Busby

– Dominica Matthews (Rheinmaiden) in top photo

 

 

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