Opera Santa Barbara will open its 2013-2014 season — its 20th — with a special lunchtime performance of Lee Hoiby’s very short and totally delightful one-act opera, Bon Appétit!, at noon Monday in the Center Stage Theater at Paseo Nuevo.
The opera stars mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely as the late Santa Barbaran, Julia Child, and is based on two episodes of Child's beloved PBS program, The French Chef, in which she demonstrates to the audience the art of baking a classic French chocolate cake, Le Gâteau au Chocolat L’Éminence Brune. After the opera, the audience will be served chocolate cake — although probably not the one Child has concocted on stage.
Hoiby, born in Madison, Wis., began playing piano at age 5. He began his higher education at the University of Wisconsin, then moved on to Mills College, where he was a pupil of Darius Milhaud. From Mills, he entered the Curtis Institute of Music and fell early and permanently under the spell of Gian Carlo Menotti, managing to acquire a great deal of his master's felicity at setting words in music.
If he never took on any subject as dark as Menotti's The Consul, The Medium or The Saint of Bleecker Street, he showed in his operas based on Maeterlinck's Sister Beatrice and Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke that he could deftly handle complex psychological dramas. Anyway, growing up in Wisconsin in the 1920s and '30s was doubtless a radically different formative experience than growing up in Fascist Italy as Menotti had done (albeit both men had the experience of being homosexual, and knowing it at an early age, in a society where that sexual orientation was definitely not tolerated).
Hoiby seems to have been most at home in comedy and fantasy. In 1982, he wrote a short opera using as libretto Ruth Draper's immortal monolog, The Italian Lesson, for his friend, actress Jean Stapleton (best-known as Edith Bunker on All in the Family), who performed the work's premiere. The collaboration with Stapleton was such a happy one that he followed it up in 1989, writing Bon Appétit! for her, and which she also premiered that same year.
There has always seemed something operatic about Julia Child — although I don't mean to imply that she was like a diva, with a diva's outsized vanity and insecurity. I mean Child was operatic in the scale on which she lived her life, operatic in her enthusiasms, and — let's face it — operatic in her speaking style. In any case, for Hoiby to have the perfect idea of a Julia Child opera seems very close to genius.
Tickets to Bon Appétit! are $13 and can be purchased by calling the Center Stage Theater at 805.963.0408 or click here to purchase tickets online.