Meryl Streep played Julia Child in the movies, and Dan Aykroyd, with a hoarse falsetto, played “the French Chef” on “Saturday Night Live.” Child’s home kitchen, used on her popular television cooking shows, was donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History.
A pop icon almost from the start of her TV career, she ended each broadcast with a jocular “This is Julia Child. Bon appétit!”
In 1989, composer Lee Hoiby’s 18-minute operetta “Bon Appétit!” premiered at the Kennedy Center, a one-woman show starring comedienne Jean Stapleton, best remembered as Edith Bunker from “All in the Family.” The music is light and tuneful. The libretto, crafted by Mark Shulgasser, is drawn entirely from two episodes of Child’s TV series, where she bakes a chocolate cake.
The Atlanta Opera will perform “Bon Appétit!” tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Cook’s Warehouse in Ansley Mall. Tickets are $25, and it’s a benefit performance for the opera. Mezzo soprano Susan Nicely will sing the chef.
I called Lee Hoiby to learn more and got two for one: Shulgasser, Hoiby’s life partner and longtime librettist, was also on the line, upstairs. They live in a village in the Catskill Mountains in western New York state. Among their collaborations is “The Tempest,” one of Hoiby’s most respected works, and a 10-minute “I Have a Dream” setting for baritone and orchestra. Fittingly, as we talked, Hoiby was in the kitchen fixing himself a glass of chocolate milk.
Pierre Ruhe: How’d “Bon Appétit!” come about?
Mark Shulgasser: It was my idea.
Lee Hoiby: Mark gets the credit. We approached Jean [Stapleton] about doing “The Italian Lessons,” a weightier monodrama, and we needed a curtain raiser. We wanted a comedy. Mark had the idea to set Julia Child’s cooking lessons to music.
Shulgasser: So we called [Boston’s public television station] WGBH, who helped us contact Julia’s agent, and she gave her approval. They sent us several years of videotapes of her shows, and we settled on combining two episodes from the 1970s.
Hoiby: Jean initially wanted a chicken recipe. She thought rubber chickens were always funny on stage.
Shulgasser: We ended up where she makes a chocolate cake and pits a whisk against an electric mixer to whip up an egg. It’s very funny and endearing. It’s perfectly Julia.
Hoiby: I had her very first cookbook from 1960, “[Mastering] the Art of French Cooking.”
Shulgasser: We adored her.
Ruhe: Julia Child has become something of a gay icon, too. Was that a factor?
Shulgasser: We weren’t thinking about the opera in those terms, but she’s camp for sure. We’ve seen the opera done in all fashions, totally camped up or without any affectation whatsoever.
Hoiby: You know, some singers, especially the comics, think it’s all ad libitum, that they can take a lot of liberties with the score. But the pitches and rhythms are exact. I made a tape of myself at the piano, singing it accurately, for reference.
Shulgasser: Lee is very strict about that. You can do what you like with the [stage] direction, but not the score.
Hoiby: When Jean did it, first at the Kennedy Center in Washington and then off-Broadway — that was a very successful run — she never used any props, no copper pans or kitchen appliances, just a steel table. She did it all mimed. There’s the temptation to actually bake the cake during the performance, with eggs flying all over and the pan dropped on the floor. [Susan Nicely’s performance, at Cook’s Warehouse, will likely involve actual cooking.]
Ruhe: Is there a recording or video of Jean Stapleton doing it? It would be interesting if you felt the definitive version of the opera remains the TV character on which it’s based. In other words, should a new singer coming to the role be informed by Julia Child’s personality, rather than Jean Stapleton’s portrayal?
Hoiby: Jean wasn’t interested in a filmed version, although she did it all over, in D.C. and Santa Fe and all over. We did the orchestrated version with the Baltimore Opera. Julia came to see the show in Long Beach. She gobbled it up and was talking to Jean backstage when the audience was demanding a curtain call. We had to push them out there. Boy, the audience was surprised! There was Julia!
Shulgasser: He’s asking if singers should try to imitate Julia exactly.
Hoiby: Some do. Julia had a very musical delivery, and I let that inform how I wrote the music. These are exactly her words. Julia didn’t realize she’s a poet.