By David Lyman
Read this next paragraph closely because it contains a phrase you likely will never hear again from an opera singer.
“The notes are incidental to the story,” says mezzo-soprano Ellen Graham. “If it gets too precious or beautiful – that’s not what it’s about.”
Sacrilege, right? But I have to defend Graham. She’s not talking about all operas. She’s talking about “Bon Appétit,” Lee Hoiby’s ridiculously clever one-person work about Julia Child and the making of a Le Gateau au Chocolate l’Eminence Brune, a particularly decadent chocolate cake.
Graham performs the 20-minute work as part of a program being presented July 19 by concert:nova, an eclectic local chamber ensemble led by Cincinnati Symphony clarinetist Ixi Chen and known for its bold programming. The program is at least partially the result of the ensemble’s creative partnership with Cincinnati Opera.
Graham, a Walnut Hills grad who has a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Kentucky and a master’s degree from Miami University, is having quite the busy summer. She’s also a member of Cincinnati Opera chorus and the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati, which performed for the Chorus America national conference in mid-June. During the day, she serves as group sales manager for the Cincinnati Symphony.
Hoiby did write lots of beautiful music. Just listen to “A Month in the Country” and his adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke,” as well as the many art songs he wrote, most famously championed by Leontyne Price.
But “Bon Appétit” is different. It’s more of a divertissement, a musical confection. Hoiby might not agree with the description, but he had to have a little humor in his heart when he wrote the work for Jean Stapleton, best known to the world as Edith, Archie Bunker’s long-suffering wife on “All in the Family.”
Following in such monumental footsteps could be intimidating. But as Graham recounts the first time she tackled this role, in 2012, you realize she didn’t have time to fret about those who had gone before her.
Kelvin Chan, a former singing colleague, had moved to New York and started the Vital Opera Company. The company had scheduled a performance of “Bon Appétit” at the Sur La Table store on West 57th Street to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Child’s birth.
“Three weeks before the performance, he called me,” says Graham. “The woman he had hired to do the piece had backed out. He asked if I could do it. I didn’t know the piece. I’d never even heard a recording of it. I love Lee Hoiby’s music, but . . .”
All she knew for sure was she would be the only singer.
So of course she said “yes.”
“I was of two minds,” says Graham. “I wanted to do it, but I was panicking. I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to learn all this music?’ ”
But the music turned out to be just half of the task. As she sings, she must bake a cake. From scratch. No Betty Crocker Super Moist Cake Mix here. This is Julia Child, after all. This cake is the Le Gateau au Chocolate l’Eminence Brune, with 7 ounces of semisweet chocolate, 2 ounces of unsweetened chocolate, 4 large eggs – separated, of course – and on and on and on.
“I didn’t have any choice,” says Graham. “I just started learning it.” The music, the lyrics and the baking.
Graham doesn’t try to impersonate Child. Hoiby’s music manages to re-create a suggestion of the master chef’s distinctive way of speaking. Judging by several performances available online, trying to imitate Child inevitably seems to end in failure.
“This isn’t a parody,” says Graham. “She was so significant in so many different ways – not just in her cooking. She really was, in her own way, quite a feminist. So it was very important to me that the character I create on the stage reflect the significant person that she was. I didn’t want an SNL (‘Saturday Night Live’) version of her.”
Graham has watched many episodes of Child’s famed TV show over and over. She has tried to reflect a bit of what she calls Child’s “tall-lady syndrome.” (“You know what I mean, where she has a little bit of a slouch.”)
But mostly, Graham wants to honor Child and Hoiby and librettist Mark Shulgasser. And she wants that cake to be perfect.
Hoiby included one more complication. In the middle of the piece, Julia engages in a challenge, pitting the power of her whisk against a blender.
“It’s brilliant,” says Graham. “His orchestration makes the music sound like the whirring of a blender. He actually writes it into the counterpart.”
At the dress rehearsal of the New York performance, the blender won. (It’s not supposed to.) And the two store-bought cakes the director purchased for rehearsal were disasters. One crumbled when Graham started applying the icing. The other was still frozen. When Graham started slicing, the cake cutter stuck in the cake.
When it came time for the performance, there was no grocery-store cake. It was Graham’s version of Child’s cake. And, by all reports, it was perfect. Light, but rich. As Child sings at the beginning of the opera, “It’s a very special, very chocolatey, bittersweet, lovely cake.”
Julia Child Cake Demonstration
July 17, 4 p.m., Artichoke, 1824 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine
Step-by-step instruction in making Le Gateau au Chocolate by Chef Daniel Tonozzi with wine specifically selected by Findlay Market’s Market Wines.
‘Food+Music: Bon Appetit!’
July 19, 7:30 p.m., Cincinnati State Culinary Auditorium
Presented by concert:nova, Ellen Graham, mezzo-soprano
Tickets and information: concertnova.com