The Classical Note: The Dallas Opera Sets Julia Child to Music at the Dallas Farmers Market

I drove over to the Dallas Farmer’s Market last Saturday afternoon, but it wasn’t to buy locally-grown produce.

Dallas Opera, with an admirable policy of maintaining a public presence between the mainstage productions at the Winspear, presented Lee Hoiby’s delightful one-woman show Bon Appétit from 1986 in the Market’s demonstration kitchen, with predictably delicious results. (Hoiby, who died in 2011 at the age of 85, is best known to Dallas audiences for his operatic setting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, produced here by Dallas Opera in 1996.)

Based on a script of one Julia Child’s iconic television shows (Child is credited as co-librettist for the piece, along with Mark Shulgasser), the eighteen-minute work does what operas do best: it allows the listener to hear the words in a new way. Mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely, accompanied by pianist Mary Dibbern of the Dallas Opera staff, delivered the goods with a gorgeously textured, rich vocal timbre and a perfect touch of slapstick, expanding on and somewhat exaggerating Child’s endearing, always-laughed-off clumsiness. However, the moments of slapstick didn’t obscure the real beauty of Hoiby’s lyrical score, typical of that composer’s adamant neo-romanticism and reminiscent of classic French impressionism.

The staging re-created the sense of a live filming of an episode of The French Chef, complete with a commercial break (during which Nicely’s version of Child promptly gets drunk) and the use of real recipe ingredients for the baking of a chocolate cake.

But, in this setting, Child’s upper-crust ad libs took on some wonderful and occasionally darker implications of consumerism, opulent consumption, and what one might call the cult of mass expertise (i.e., anyone can be a chef). Still, on the main, the words, the music, and the performance radiated the joy of (relatively) simple pleasures, like a fine chocolate cake, or a well-crafted chamber opera.

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Opera of a completely different sort arrives in Dallas this week when the Orchestra of New Spain, a local professional ensemble devoted to the performance of music of the Spanish and Latin American baroque, presents Sebastián Durón’s Las Nuevas Armas de Amor (Cupid’s New Weapons of Love). The group promises an authentic eighteenth-century-style rendition of the first modern performance anywhere in the world of this work from 1711. Performances will run on Thursday and Saturday at the City Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District.