Continuing in the theme of our previous blog post supporting the ‘Musical Feast’ exhibition in the Anderson Room, I thought for this post I would serve up a few examples of food, drink, and feasting in opera.
Feasts and banquets are central to the plot of many an opera. Some of these meals are successful occasions, but many of them turn out rather differently to how their hosts intended. Verdi’s Macbeth and Mozart’s Don Giovanni are just two operas in which these occasions do not quite go to plan. The end of Don Giovanni is a good example of how things can go wrong when one invites one’s enemies to dinner. The unhappy statue of the Commandatore arrives, as invited, before sending Giovanni down into Hell to pay for all his wrongdoings.
Another spectre at the operatic feast is Banquo in Verdi’s Macbeth. Worried by the three witches’ prophecy that Banquo would father a line of kings, Macbeth gives orders for him and his son to be assassinated on their way to the royal banquet. This banquet, the first (and last!) that the Macbeths throw as king and queen, was not the most successful social occasion. Macbeth is aghast to learn from the assasins that, although Banquo was killed, his son escaped. Despite Lady Macbeth’s attempts to entertain the guests and smooth over the situation with a brindisi, the edge is taken off the jollity by Banquo’s ghost, who appears to Macbeth.
A later, more celebratory meal is the banquet scene in Adams’ Nixon in China. Here, speeches and toasts are the order of the day. Although in this production by the Metropolitan Opera there is no food on stage, the actual menu served at the dinner during Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 was apparently recreated and served after the dress rehearsal.
While feasts and feasting in general form a part of many opera plots, some works involve one type of food in particular. The apple in Rossini’s William Tell must be the most well-known operatic fruit, and the sage bush sung about in Massenet’s Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame proves that herbs can hold their own on the stage. Gingerbread is among the many delicacies with which the witch lures the children in Hansel and Gretel.
An example of a whole plot that revolves around a particular food is La Docteur Miracle, a one-act opérette by a youthful Bizet. In this comedy, the drama unfolds over an omelette, which is thought to be poisoned. After much panic and bargaining, it turns out that it was perfectly alright all along and not in the least poisonous, but before all this we are treated to the ‘omelette quartet’.
To end a rather frivolous blog post with one more frivolous example of theatrical food, I don’t think I could do better than Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke. The notoriously complicated storyline involves a secret sign between members of a conspiracy by which they can recognise one another – eating a sausage roll. When a detective with a partiality for sausage rolls is mistaken for one of the conspirators, complications ensue.
For more musical dishes, do come and sample our Musical Feast exhibition in the Anderson Room!