Julia Child was, in many ways, a larger-than-life figure. And while she never wavered from her self-appointed mission to raise the standards of American cooking, she also never took herself too seriously.
Together, those qualities make the iconic TV chef, who spent her final years in Santa Barbara, an ideal character for comic opera. Proof of this will be offered at noon Monday, September 30, when Opera Santa Barbara presents the one-act Bon Appetit! at Center Stage Theater.
“I love that she wasn’t hoity-toity in any way,” said mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely, who will portray Child. “She is down-to-earth. She certainly was able to laugh at herself. I take these endearing qualities and heighten them for comic effect.”
Composer Lee Hoiby and librettist Mark Shulgasser created the short work in the late 1980s. It premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1989, with Jean Stapleton of All in the Family fame in the title role. Stapleton subsequently performed it around the country; Child caught a performance in Long Beach and afterward expressed her delight.
Nicely isn’t surprised she enjoyed herself. “The piece makes fun of her but in a very loving way,” she said. “It’s not mean-spirited in any shape or form. I do exaggerate certain things people teased her about, like her clumsiness.
“When I first started doing this piece, about 15 years ago, I watched many of her shows. She does drop things quite a bit, and she laughs at herself when she makes a mess, or when things go wrong. These are endearing qualities!”
The libretto “is literally, word-for-word, taken from Julia’s mouth,” Nicely noted. “It’s a compilation of a couple episodes of her French Chef show on PBS.” But the performance is, obviously, not a documentary.
“I recently did it in Dallas, where one reviewer said my performance was more like Lucille Ball than Julia Child,” she said. “I do take it quite far, in terms of the physical humor. I really want the audience to have a good time.”
So is this piece opera, musical theater, or somewhere in between?
“There are lovely melodies in it,” she said. “Parts of it are neo-romantic. Then there is Ethel Merman-esque Broadway belting stuff, which I do in my operatic voice. One of the things I love the most about it is that it’s so musically descriptive about what’s going on physically, as when I’m breaking the eggs or beating the egg whites.”
Nicely laughed when she was reminded that her Santa Barbara audience will very likely include people that knew Child, who died in Montecito in 2004.
“I hope they understand that I am not trying to do an impersonation of her,” she said. “I wear a wig and the same type of clothes she wore during the French Chef series, but I’m very short and very round. I look like Julia Child with a pituitary and thyroid condition!”
And then there’s that one other distinction she makes between herself and the legend she is lovingly portraying: “I also can’t cook worth a damn.” n
Opera Santa Barbara presents Bon Appétit! On Monday, September 30, at noon at Center Stage Theater (721 Paseo Nuevo). Call (805) 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org for tickets and info.