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That’s Amore, in the Opera House and in the Kitchen

From Operavore, the WQXR Blog

Jul 22, 2020 · by Fred Plotkin

Each one of us has developed a routine (perhaps I should say “coping mechanism”) in these unprecedented times. I have always been one of those people who believes that if you wake up, you work. To me there is no such thing as a weekend, so I’ve kept working every day — even if it does not provide some of the compensations I would like to have. But there is pleasure, and engagement with ideas, which is rewarding in its own way. 

I have always enjoyed cooking (and have written six cookbooks), and a Saturday ritual I have continued from pre-COVID days is to listen to WQXR’s opera broadcast while engaged in cooking stews, sauces, compotes, and vegetable medleys for the week to come. I plan what I cook based on the length of the opera: the wonderful recent Elektra with Christine Goerke was only long enough to make a Greek salad and steamed monkfish. Give me Les Troyens and I could cook for an army.

Another ritual I have taken on since the coronavirus pandemic has kept me home is to see a film each day. I always have time for old favorites such as Bringing Up Baby and La Strada, but have also made sure to watch genres I had not been interested in (westerns, science fiction) and discover actors whose work I had yet to fully explore (Dick Powell, Ann Sheridan). Cinema is an outgrowth of opera, with sweeping settings, big emotions and mythical stars; the only major difference is that in opera, music is the chief narrative medium, while in film it is the spoken word. Both have strong visual components.

A film I revisited the other day is Norman Jewison’s 1987 opera-themed Italian-American romantic comedy Moonstruck, for which Cher and Olympia Dukakis received richly-deserved acting Oscars. I saw it as soon as it was released (for reasons I will discuss below), and only one other time in the 1990s, dubbed in Italian for Italian television — which worked very well! 

Moonstruck is a film suffused with operatic music and stories as well as popular Italian-American songs. The continued references to the effects of a full moon are mostly spoken in the lines “Guardate la luna!” by the old man (played by Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.) to the dogs he walks each night on the Brooklyn waterfront. Chaliapin was the son of the world-renowned Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, who was considered not only a great singer, but a stupendous actor.

I must confess that I found it sad to watch the scene in which the opera-loving bread baker (Nicolas Cage) takes Loretta (Cher) to the Met for her first opera. Seeing the opera house beautifully lit, and with an auditorium full of well-dressed people assembled to see La Bohème after the crystal chandeliers rise, reminded me that this is something none of us will get to do for much too long.

This was the first film I was ever hired to work on in a capacity other than being an extra. The scenes at the Met needed someone who knew the opera house (I was then Performance Manager), but also knew opera and spoke Italian. It was a thrill to watch them making these now-famous scenes, and then being asked by the location manager and assistant director if everything was faithful to opera, its audiences, and the particular ways of the Metropolitan Opera House. 

The question I am most asked is why the production of La Bohème seen onstage in the film is not the famous Zeffirelli version that premiered in 1981. The answer is that the cost of paying the rights was prohibitive. Rather than putting another production on the Met stage, they edited in a performance from Toronto. So, Cher was deeply moved by an opera she was not even watching — no wonder she got an Academy Award!

Additionally, the singing voices in the film are actually from the recording of La Bohème conducted by Tullio Serafin and starring Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi, dubbed into the mouths of actors in Toronto. Both Tebaldi and Bergonzi were from the province of Parma, one of the citadels of Italian cuisine. Tebaldi was from Langhirano, where the famous prosciutto is made, yet (if we are to believe her memoir) she was indifferent to food — and not just because she was trying watch her weight. I recall that she contented herself with chicken breast cooked with rosemary almost every day. In contrast, Bergonzi was from Busseto (where Verdi grew up, as did Luca Pisaroni) and loved good food. He had a hotel named I Due Foscari with an outstanding restaurant that was a destination unto itself. The last time I ate there was in the company of baritone Renato Bruson, who co-stars with Bergonzi in this performance of the Verdi opera for which the hotel is named. 

Perhaps because I have been spending more time than usual in my kitchen in the past four months, I notice the food more in the movies I have been watching. Moonstruck is full of scenes that revolve around making and eating meals. As much of my culinary background is Italian and Italian-American, I noted with care what the characters cooked and ate. In one scene, Olympia Dukakis is cooking a piece of Italian bread in a frying pan, to which she adds an egg to a hole in the middle. It reminded me of something baritone Tito Gobbi liked to make; I published his recipe in a remembrance a few years ago.

In my opera and food careers, I have cooked and eaten with many outstanding artists. Among the most gifted in the kitchen were Zinka Milanov, Lucia Valentini-Terrani, Luciano Pavarotti, and Licia Albanese. I met Albanese (Bari, 1919 – New York, 2014) when I was about 8 years old — not through opera, but because my father tuned the piano in her Park Avenue apartment. He often took me along on his tuning jobs because he wanted me to meet people who loved music. Licia (as I was allowed to call her) was not just a beloved diva, but, as she told me, “moglie, madre, casalinga” (wife, mother, housewife) who spent a lot of time cooking for her family. While Dad tuned, Licia taught me recipes from her native Puglia and, inevitably, fed us a meal before saying arrivederci

In one of the kitchen scenes of Moonstruck, the extended family gathers for a meal that included a dish that reminded me very much of one Licia Albanese gave me the recipe for — which I cooked after rewatching the film. If one has to self-isolate, this is a delicious way to do it. 

Timballo di Mezzani all’Albanese Licia Albanese’s Baked Mezzani 4 to 6 servings 1 pound ground beef or veal 1-½ cups freshly grated Parmigiano or Pecorino (or combined) 1 large egg 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 2 tablespoons finely minced Italian parsley Salt and pepper to taste 1 clove garlic minced (optional) Olive oil 1 pound mezzani or 1-½ inch long maccheroni 1-½ cups tomato sauce, perhaps with fresh basil 1 medium-sized ripe tomato, thinly sliced 1 cup unflavored bread crumbs

Prepare tiny, fingertip-sized meatballs: Put the meat, ½ cup of grated cheese, egg, lemon juice, parsley, salt, pepper, and garlic in a bowl and combine until thoroughly mixed. Do not work the mixture more than you need to. Form the meatballs and fry in approximately 3 tablespoons of olive oil until well-browned. Let the meatballs drain on absorbent paper.

Cook the mezzani in a large pot of lightly salted boiling water until nearly but not quite al dente. Drain the pasta well.

Grease an earthenware casserole with olive oil and put in a layer of mezzani. Alternate casually between tomato sauce, meatballs, grated cheese, and more mezzani until you have used all of the ingredients. Top the casserole with slices of fresh tomato. Drizzle on a little more olive oil and top the whole thing with bread crumbs. Bake in a preheated 350˚F (180˚C) oven for 30 minutes, and then let the timballo cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Wine: Salice Salentino, Aglianico, or another sturdy Southern Italian red.

Fred Plotkin
Fred Plotkin

FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information.  Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile inThe New York Timeson August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian." 



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