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Divas and dining: Why is opera obsessed with food?

From Rossini's famed recipes to dramatic onstage dinner deaths, opera is fascinated with food.

By Fred Plotkin (Writer and broadcaster)

6 March 2014 at 3.36pm | 2 Comments

I have been happily exploring the relationship between food, wine and opera for most of my life. The way composers and singers are inspired by food and wine makes a fascinating topic for study, although one must expect hunger pangs as a side effect!

Every opera character is nourished by something, whether we see them consume it or not. Violetta thrived on champagne. Puccini’s Bohemians starved. It begs the question - does Madama Butterfly, who lives in Japan but sings in Italian, eat soba noodles with pesto (the kind of gastronomic fusion trend that's increasingly popular among foodies)?

The most infamous fusion of food and drama in opera is seen in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in which lead character Katerina poisons her father-in-law with rat poison and mushrooms!

It's not just the characters that like their food - composers and singers have favourite dishes and entrenched beliefs about what to eat. Mozart loved sweets, Wagner dabbled in vegetarianismVerdi was a farmer who grew his own food, Rossini cooked risotto while he composed (and was almost as lauded for his recipe compositions as his musical ones), Caruso ate spinach and chicken livers for strength, and Luisa Tetrazzini ate everything!

The audiences too - from one place to the next - are distinct in what they eat and drink before, during and after a performance. Each opera house I go to has its own traditions. In Amsterdam, almost the entire audience has soup, sandwiches and wine at the interval. In Munich they drink sour cherry juice. I love that the restaurants of the Royal Opera House often serve dishes connected not only to the seasons but also to the operas currently in repertory!

Fred Plotkin will be exploring the connection between the operatic and the gastronomic at an upcoming ROH Insight event - Pleasure and Inspiration - on 28 March. Tickets are still available.

By Fred Plotkin (Writer and broadcaster)

6 March 2014 at 3.36pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged dining, eating, food, Gioachino Rossini, ROH Insights, Tournedos Rossini

This article has 2 comments

  1. Because it is all to do with the olfactory senses! Not sure about the characters, but singers are very sensitive orally(!) - ask any dentist, we create more saliva and therefore more plaque! We virtually 'eat' words, we salivate over them, we savour them, we chew over them - no wonder many of us are foodies and wine -ies. - it is just a continuation of the day job!

  2. Jean Marie Pike responded on 13 March 2014 at 1:16pm Reply

    Has anyone analysed opera's obsession with death? War? Satanism? Look at who comprise the majority of the opera attending public. As I learn more about what goes on behind closed doors, I am drawing my own conclusions.

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