Oh the agony: to see a practically perfect chocolate cake made right in front of you but not be able to taste it! If only Pacific Opera Victoria had thought to offer viewers of their filmed version of Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appetit! the option of DoorDash delivery … but no. We are left to nurse our cravings in private.
POV originally intended a different fate for the 18-minute Bon Appetit! and another short Hoiby opera, The Italian Lesson, which clocks in at about 45 minutes. The two were to be presented live to small audiences inside the company’s Baumann Centre, with cake included. Changes in British Columbia’s COVID restrictions meant a pivot to filming both works and offering them free of charge until June 21st through the company’s website or YouTube channel. Both are worth the time to seek out, even if you hate the idea of opera on a small screen.
Like Bon Appetit!, Hoiby wrote The Italian Lesson in the 1980s for Jean Stapleton, a classically trained singer long before she became famous for playing Edith Bunker on the TV sitcom All in the Family, and it’s easy to imagine her in both roles, but particularly in The Italian Lesson. She was a great comic actor, but at the same time you could sense something—sadness? weariness?—lurking under the humour. Vancouver-based Megan Latham is perhaps not as subtle an actor, but she does find, within the sophisticated score, a little humanity and self-awareness beneath the bustling exterior of wealthy New York society matron, Mrs. Clancy.
Based on a comic monologue by Ruth Draper, famous in the 1920s for her one-woman shows, The Italian Lesson follows Mrs. Clancy’s failed attempt to get past the first line in Dante’s The Inferno with her Italian teacher, known only as the Signorina. Each time she starts to translate the line, she absolutely must attend to something else: a phone call from a gossipy friend, that night’s dinner menu, a horde of rambunctious children (“Barbara, darling, get the baby. She’s in the waste-basket? Well, pull her out!”)—and that’s by no means all. It’s a frenzy of a morning at the Clancy house, yet occasionally it slows down to allow the possibility of a different person beneath the busyness.
The first time is just after Mrs. Clancy starts her lesson, when she is struck by the idea of Dante and Virgil “just stumbling along,” not knowing where they were going. Latham’s thick, rich mezzo becomes tentative here, as if seeing herself doing the same. There’s also a moment near the end when an altogether softer, kinder person while talking to her lover.
But these are only the most poignant of Hoiby’s musical change-ups. The cleverness of The Italian Lesson rests not only on Draper’s dialogue but in the composer’s ability to use musical changes in rhythm and tone and colour to clarify Mrs. Clancy’s differing attitudes to each person she encounters on this hectic morning—from confiding, to bossy, to careless to dismissive. Latham handles the shifts from light to dark, from speak-singing to fuller voice well, and even manages to look at ease on screen as she moves about the sherbet-coloured set (by Pam Johnson), which is a miracle considering the demands placed on her by COVID protocols.
Limits on the number of people in an indoor space meant the singer, director Glynis Leyshon, conductor Giuseppe Pietraroia, an 11-piece chamber orchestra, three camera operators and the rest of the production crew could not be in the same space at the same time. Instead, POV pre-recorded Latham and the orchestra, plus incidental noises, and she then sang and spoke live on set to match as closely as possible with the recorded track (you may notice a few slight slips). Latham also had to remember not to walk toward the phone before it rang, or, in Bon Appetit!, to turn on the mixer before it started. All this gave Latham no room for the spontaneity that makes stage performances so compelling, and may be one reason the more naturally comic Bon Appetit! feels a little constrained.
Combining text from two episodes of Child’s iconic TV show, The French Chef, the mini-opera follows Latham-as-Julia Child preparing her famous Le Gateau au Chocolate l’Eminence Brune, a soufflé-like cake made with espresso. The singer captures Child’s swooping vocal ticks and her slap-dash approach to buttering pans but, had POV performed or recorded it live, they may have chosen to play it far more broadly, with bowls flying and cakes falling. Certainly, Hoiby’s score is open to a more rollicking performance, with musical jokes like a snippet of Le Marseillaise when Julia declares “you’ve got to have a battle pan,” and of America the Beautiful when she brings out a bowl of US Grade A eggs. The race between a hand beater and an electric mixer could have been hilarious, too.
That said, this online version is still a lot of fun, and you are saved from having to eat a slice of that fabulous cake. Just to be polite, of course.
Streaming links and more information for The Italian Lesson & Bon Appétit! can be found here.