I’ve been obsessed with Julia Child for a long time. My mom’s well-loved copy of “The Way to Cook” was a staple in my kitchen as a child while “Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child” was on my mom’s nightstand for I don’t even know how long. The first American cook to bring French cuisine to Americans is etched into my brain, from the black and white portrait on that book cover to the rich smells of my mom’s interpretations of her recipes.
That’s why I melted into butter (Julia’s favorite) when I heard about the upcoming Opera Carolina production of “Bon Appetit!” running from Feb. 22 through 23 in the Johnson & Wales Demonstration Kitchen.
The long-running opera monologue is based on two episodes from Julia’s classic television cooking show, “The French Chef,” which ran from 1963 to 1973. The writer of the opera, (called a librettist) Lee Hoiby, originally wrote the piece as a star vehicle for “All in the Family” actor Jean Stapleton, who debuted on Broadway as Julia in 1989.
Since that time, the show has gone on to other venues, cities and actresses playing Julia. For 30 years, mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely has been an opera singer and embodies Julia with gusto. Nicely, the self-professed worst cook in the world, has to make an actual cake during the show, from heating the chocolate to frosting the cake.
“I love this piece,” she says. “I’ve done it a lot and it’s just so much fun to do; the only thing I wish is that it was a little longer because it goes by so quickly.
She also takes some liberties with Julia onstage.
“Julia was a big proponent of drinking wine; she never overdid it, but in this particular show, I take certain comedic liberties and go a little overboard with just about everything,” says Nicely. “That’s kind of hard to do when you’re Julia because Julia was kind of over the top anyway. I’m taking a personality that was very flamboyant and making it even more flamboyant.”
As a gift to the Julia Child-obsessed, here’s my interview with Susan as Julia. Please read on in your best Julia voice about her upcoming show, the cake she’ll bake onstage and how she invented shark repellent during her years as a spy (this is real, people).
CharlotteFive: What kind of cake are you going to bake during the show?
“Julia Child”: This is Le Gateau au Chocolat “Eminence Brune.” It’s one of the best chocolate cakes I know!
C5: And why is that, Julia?
JC: Because it’s light like a souffle but it can’t fall. It never falls.
C5: What does your husband Paul think about you singing in an opera?
JC: Well, he’s heard me singing in the shower and so he doesn’t quite understand it, but he goes with the flow. That’s Paul!
C5: Do you think more people should sing in the kitchen while preparing dinner?
JC: No, I don’t actually. I think one should concentrate on cooking. You can’t really do two things at once. You really have to be a cook or you have to be a singer and I think that when you’re cooking you should pay attention.
C5: Now you’re going to be singing, so how come you’re doing double-duty?
JC: Well this is an exceptional occasion and I thought I’d go along with it just for giggles.
C5: You have famously said, and I quote, “Always remember: If you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to know?” What happens if you’re mid-picking it up and someone sees you?
JC: If I’m mid-picking it up and they haven’t seen it on the floor, then I would just say, oh, wasn’t that a good catch? I saved it from falling onto the floor.
C5: Before becoming a famous cook, you were a spy at the Office of Strategic Services (former name of the Central Intelligence Agency). If you were a spy now, what would you spy on?
JC: I would be spying on all those home cooks who don’t follow my recipes exactly and make sure they’re not violating the rules of chocolate. The most important thing to do is when you’re doing a cake, you have to have a battle plan. You have to go into the kitchen like a general leading the troops to war, so you must have a battle plan and lots and lots of butter. Or else, you might make some serious mistakes and lose the war.
C5: You helped invent shark repellent at the Office of Strategic Services in 1943. There are archived CIA documents that show how you did it, but how did you really do it?
JC: I cook with many types of fish, you know, cooking is just a series of the same old thing. Sometimes, there’s chocolate, and sometimes there’s fish in it, but the principles are the same, and I remember one day I was trying to do some shark steaks and I sort of discovered the shark repellent kind of by accident. Sort of like snake venom: you have to use something from the animal itself to make sure that it can undo the undesirable effects.
C5: Are you going to bake the cake from start to finish in the show?
JC: Oh, absolutely! I even have to separate the eggs and for this particular show I decided to have some fun by having a race. When it’s time to beat up the egg whites, I have a race between hand beating and machine beating and it’s quite fun, this race.
C5: What else should people know about the upcoming show?
JC: This would be a great little event to attend because it’s not snobby and it’s not inaccessible. One of my greatest goals in life is to make the fine art of French cooking accessible to everyone, and this little opera is the same thing. It’s accessible and fun and campy and would be a wonderful time. You’re not going to regret coming to watch me put together this cake.
‘Bon Appetit!’ is presented by Opera Carolina on Wednesday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. through Thursday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. Advanced tickets are available here. Location: Johnson & Wales Demonstration Kitchen, Johnson & Wales University, 801 W. Trade St.
Photos: Opera Carolina