Singer Holly Janz finds Julia Child's voice, personality in FM Opera's 'Bon Appétit!'
One-woman show has the star mixing a cake as she sings the recipe.
DILWORTH — In her television kitchen Julia Child could whip up a symphony of flavor. Her voice, however, wasn’t always music to the ears of viewers.
So it may be something of a surprise to hear that a short, one-act opera was created around the chipper and chirpy cooking personality.
“I’m a fan of Julia Child so right away I was interested,” says singer Holly Janz who plays Child in Fargo-Moorhead Opera’s “Bon Appétit!”
Judy Lewis directs Lee Hoiby’s one-act show this Friday and Saturday night at TAK Music Venue. Both nights are sold out.
Child’s voice is more identifiable than her recipes, but Janz says the chef’s personality brings it all together.
“It was less about the voice and more about her style of delivery. It’s very much the spirit of Julia Child and not a character,” the mezzo-soprano says.
The piece was written for Jean Stapleton , best known as Edith Bunker in “All in the Family,” who premiered it in 1989.
Though she died in 2004 at the age of 91, Child’s legacy has stayed in the spotlight. In 2009 the movie “Julie & Julia” wove together the chef’s life with Julia Powell’s attempt to cook her recipes every day for a year. Meryl Streep was nominated for an Academy Award for portraying America’s first celebrity chef. In 2021 a documentary about the cook, “Julia,” was released and the following year HBO Max launched “Julia,” a series about the icon and her relationship with her husband Paul.
"She's just fascinating," Janz says. “What’s really pulling me in now is trying to inhabit her joyful way of presenting herself. She’s not afraid of making mistakes.”
Child’s cooking show, “The French Chef,” was shot in one-take and she was comfortable showing the occasional error. She famously said, “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?”
Janz is the only vocal performer, though Sylvia Holm is the stage hand behind the counter, just as Child had staffers hidden out of sight to hand her things on the set.
The performance is set up like an episode of “The French Chef” with Janz as Child in her TV studio kitchen singing out the recipe for a chocolate cake, le gâteau au chocolat, or Éminence Brune. The libretto is lifted from the transcript of a show where she made the dessert and “Bon Appétit!” runs as long as it takes for Janz to get the batter mixed together and put in the oven, about 30 minutes.
Ticket holders for the two sold-out performances will get a slice of the cake and a drink to enjoy while watching the show.
Janz has made the recipe a handful of times at home to get used to it.
“I wanted to master the technique and the kitchen aspects,” she says. “I’ve been doing whisk training.”
Janz knows her way around a kitchen, having worked as a server at Sarello’s, the late fine-dining restaurant in Moorhead.
“I fell in love with the art and the quality of preparation,” she says of her time in the restaurant. “It’s always been part of my life. That’s what makes me extra appreciative to do this show.”
While it’s a relatively brief performance and confined to a relatively small space — behind the countertop in a television studio kitchen — the production is taxiing in new ways compared to other operas, like last fall's "The Marriage of Figaro."
“It is a short piece and it’s about chocolate, but it is really challenging because things have to be achieved in a certain amount of time,” she says.
As difficult as it is, that balancing act keeps it close to the spirit of Child’s one-take TV shows. Janz embraces that aspect and is feeling confident, enough so that she will hold the bowl of whipped egg whites upside down over her head to show that the peaks are properly stiff.
She says Child’s show was meant to encourage viewers to make the recipes, which Janz sets to music with accompaniment by pianist Tyler Wottrich.
She refers to the performance as, “a musical monologue.”
“It’s a very conversational piece, There’s not a lot of sweeping operatic moments,” she says.
While the libretto is about cooking, “Bon Appétit!”is really more about the joys of learning and loving life.
“It’s art for art’s sake. It’s not about perfection. Cooking and music have a lot in common that way,” she says.
And it would be hard to find a better instructor than Child.
“The way she presented herself seems to align with today’s sensibilities about being who you are and not having to fit a traditional model of a woman,” Janz says. ”I think people really appreciate that now.”