Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Food and Opera

Food and opera have always had an affinity with each other. This is especially the case for Italian food. Put some Puccini on the stereo and that spaghetti just tastes better somehow.

At the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) in Cardiff Bay, food and opera are being combined both off and on the stage.

Last October, ffresh Bar and Restaurant celebrated its second anniversary in the WMC and its inclusion in The Good Food Guide 2012. This year, they are making the most of being under the same roof as the Welsh National Opera (WNO), with members of that resident company performing at special Supper and Song evenings.

On 3 February, members of the WNO chorus sang extracts from the company’s Spring Season (Beatrice & Benedict, Marriage of Figaro and La Traviata), while diners ate a 3-course meal that included salmon fishcakes, roast pork belly, and chocolate fudge cheesecake. After drinks in the bar and starters in the restaurant, Laura Pooley (pictured), Sian Meinir and Meriel Andrew, dressed in evening gowns and feather boas, performed a selection of arias, trios and duets accompanied by James Southall on the piano. They returned between the main course and dessert for a second set.

At the St David’s Day Dinner (1 March), diners will be entertained by harpist Katherine Thomas and soprano Gwenllion Evans. They will perform popular Welsh songs and songs by the Cardiff-born composer Ivor Novello (whose statue can be seen outside ffresh). Executive chef Kurt Fleming has created a menu full of Welsh ingredients. There will be cockles and laverbread to start, followed by roast rack and braised shoulder of Carmarthenshire lamb with faggots, mashed potato and glazed carrots. The dessert will be a bread and butter pudding with a Celtic twist, using Bravelli’s Brecon gin marmalade and Penderyn whisky crème anglaise. The restaurant is used to sourcing Welsh ingredients, through its pioneering Wales the True Taste partnership.

On May 11, the WNO Chorus return to ffresh for Dinner with Puccini, when they will be performing highlights from La bohème and Madame Butterfly. As with all the Supper and Song evenings, a three-course dinner, half a bottle of wine and entertainment costs £39 per person. These evenings are planned to become a regular feature at ffresh.

Meanwhile, food often adorns the WNO stage. Acting Deputy Stage Manager Katie Heath-Jones shared some secrets concerning how food is prepared for several opera productions in a recent WNO podcast. Although fake stage food is used, there’s often plenty of real food on stage too. In the café scene in La bohème, for instance, fresh chicken breasts, fresh French baguettes, bacon, brie and grapes adorn the table. Mimi eats a crème caramel, although the red wine is actually a famous brand of blackcurrant squash.

Regular grocery shopping trips are therefore part of the stage manager’s routine. In their Richard Jones production of Hansel and Gretel, setting up the food takes around 3 to 4 hours beforehand. There is a table groaning under the weight of black forest gateaux, jelly, profiteroles and other desserts. During the show it is thrown around the stage, and so there is also a long and messy clean-up operation afterwards.

La Traviata has a dinner party scene featuring chicken (though the oysters are fake), bowls of spaghetti are served in The Barber of Seville (although that steam is smoke put underneath the bowls just before they come onstage), fish was served in a previous Tosca production (actually a mashed banana), and champagne flows in Die Fledermaus and, to a lesser extent, in other productions. The champagne is either a non-alcoholic champagne, selected for the satisfying pop it gives when opened, or fizzy water with a bit of food colouring.

When Elijah Moshinsky created a new production of Beatrice & Benedict in 1994 for WNO, food became a character in the opera. It was both cooked and consumed onstage. The director’s instructions were for spaghetti and Napolitano sauce to be cooked onstage and served to the chorus and principals, while the auditorium should fill with the aroma of garlic. Cooking the meal was the responsibility of the stage manager.

The set features a kitchen, seen through a back window on the terrace of an elegant Italian villa. A cooker and a hob are situated just offstage from this. The original tomato sauce recipe was supplied by a member of the chorus, but because it was a secret recipe from his Italian family it was never written down and now cannot be replicated.

Beatrice and Benedict was revived a couple of times at the New Theatre, and is now being staged at the WMC for the first time. It starts with a feast and there is plenty of food on the table, but on the first night the pasta did not appear: glasses of champagne were bought out for the chorus instead. There was apparently some pasta cooked by the side of the stage, but with the much greater size of the arena and modern air extraction systems no aroma reached the audience. This is one aspect of the production that did not successfully transfer from the New Theatre.

When real food is bought onstage, each individual chorus singer has to be catered for in terms of allergies and other needs. There are also obvious considerations concerning the best food to eat while singing. Opera singers can get hungry while on stage: Pavarotti famously had a bowl of parmesan to hand in case of emergencies. The leftovers, after the chorus has finished, are apparently quickly snapped up by the crew.

Photo by Glenn Edwards, courtesy of ffresh Restaurant.

My review of Beatrice and Benedict for Buzz:

ffresh, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay:

Katie Heath-Jones ‘Turning up the heat’ WNO Podcast (Jan 2012):
The second anniversary celebration dinner at ffresh:

No comments:

Post a Comment