This article first appeared in auditionoracle.com
Food is a very important part of singing opera. No, I'm not talking about the ever-present bananas in dressing rooms, or the cake that the very best colleagues bring to rehearsals (obviously averagely-good colleagues bring fruit and nuts but let's just be honest about the cake bit, OK?). No, food is often an integral part of an operatic story and as such it's needed on stage. There are some obvious ones. Hansel & Gretel (right) is about starving children and their day of reckoning in a gingerbread house. Sondheim's Sweeney Todd has more than one number dedicated to pies, though their manufacture is of more interest than their consumption.
More specifically, there are a couple of roles that demand the character eats as he - and it's usually he - performs. Scarpia is often having dinner, not least as wine is mentioned in his conversation with Tosca. Franco Zeffirelli's famous production for the Royal Opera in the 1960s had Tito Gobbi tucking into a meal. Perhaps it's a baritone thing then: Don Giovanni invites the ghost of the Commendatore to dinner (and Leporello, starving, swipes some of the food). Falstaff doesn't even bother to invite anyone and just gets on with it. There's a fair bit of getting drunk in opera too, from the most famous, Verdi's Brindisi in La Traviata and the Beve, beve chorus in Otello to The Elisir d'amore itself (here's a clip of the great Luciano Pavarotti taking the easy way out by not taking the cork out *warning, includes dancing*)
The issue here is the fact that one is supposed to be singing at roughly the same time. Mouth-multitasking (mouthtitasking?!) is, on the face of it, fraught with hazard. What should a singer eat on stage? And how should they eat? Well, lettuce is often requested by some singers as it's moist, bland and light. Chicken is also favoured. The anonymous taste of such food means that it's unlikely to provoke the manufacture of saliva, flooding the mouth that needs to be used for singing. Food can also be a useful dramatic prop and to that end singers often spit it out. Drink is also good for this. We're talking about the artists decisions of course - in Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht a character is required to sing and gargle at the same time, and spitting the water out is part of what constitutes his character.
There are some substances that performers have to deal with that isn't food. This requires even greater care. Sometimes, food is used as a substitute for other bodily fluids, such as vomit. Blood is also more than just an issue of red fluid. In the Royal Opera's production of Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur, a group of carnivorous bird-women have to run on stage and enact the consumption of dead and dying humans, with the stage blood dripping from their mouths. Glycerin is used, not only to achieve the best texture of the blood but also to avoid complications in the event of performers ingesting the fluid.
One other prop that's often forgotten in all this are those that produce smoke. Cigarettes are not only a directorial preference, especially in specific period productions, but also demanded in some operas, like Carmen, whose first act is set outside a cigarette factory. In the 1998 Glyndebourne production of Rodelinda, Umberto Chiummo's Garibaldi pulled off the stunt of singing almost the entire aria with a cigarette in his mouth (from 1 hour, 31 mins).
Clearly a performer must have the last say whether this is a real cigarette (arguably illegal onstage anyway), a herbal one or a stunt cigarette that emits powder when blown. Perhaps the current trend for 'vyping' cigarettes, that produce steam are the way forward for such a prop. It's not just the performers that have to consider the food on stage. It can be a headache for the stage crew too, who have to prepare and clear up stage food. Makes the idea of a 'bun fight' seem so much more appealing than throwing butter around.