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Insights: Pleasure and Inspiration

What do Verdi’s La traviata, Puccini’s Tosca and Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel have in common?

Background

What do Verdi’s La traviata, Puccini’s Tosca and Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel have in common? Tragic heroines, ravishing music? Well yes, but also – according to writer Fred Plotkin – a focus on food and drink. Traviata opens with a party scene of over-flowing cups and plentiful food; Hänsel und Gretel is essentially about two hungry children and in Tosca the heroine interrupts the villain Scarpia’s meal before killing him with the knife he’s just been using. And it’s not just opera characters who like their food, as Fred Plotkin explains: ‘Rossini was a famous gourmand. He knew food well, he liked the richest food all the time – which gave him gout – but I think Verdi actually knew more about food. He grew up in a trattoria, which his mother ran, and he had been a farmer for many years, so therefore he knew food in a different way.’ But food and drink isn’t there just to be enjoyed in the operatic world. In Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District, the lead character, Katerina, poisons her father-in-law with rat poison and mushrooms, a scene which Plotkin calls ‘the most infamous dinner in all of opera’. Plotkin will be speaking on food and drink in opera at a Royal Opera House Insight event in the spring.