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Side view of theater at dusk with white baffles

Great Pairings: Opera and Food

By Judith Fein


Great Pairings: Opera and Food

George and Martha. Ginger and Fred. Angelina and Brad. Opera and food. Some things are made to be together. Can you imagine Abbott hamming it up without Costello, Penn bending reality without Teller, or summertime at The Santa Fe Opera without tailgate parties, picnics, Desiree Mays’ talks over dinner in the cantina, and now the exciting new merging of taste and sound at the Santa Fe School of Cooking?

Picture this: a chef prepares and plates five dishes that correspond geographically to the five operas being featured. For Salome, it’s a sensuous dance of earthy Middle Eastern ingredients—cumin spiced flat bread with hummus, carrot and cardamom puree. The Daughter of the Regiment? La belle France is represented by a traditional salad Nicoise, with haricot vert, quail eggs, potato, tuna, and olive tapenade on toasted baguette. Yum yum, or miam-miam, as they say in Paris. La Finta Gardiniera appears on your plate as dolmas filled to plumpness with rice, raisins, and almonds, served with tzatziki sauce. Rigoletto is represented by a Mediterranean-esque chicken breast stuffed with chicken and sundried tomato sausage in sage brown butter sauce on polenta, served with sautéed arugula. And how much more American cuisine can Cold Mountain be than apple pie à la mode?

Leave it to the Santa Fe School of Cooking to delight all your senses and stimulate your mind in one event. Before each dish, one of the opera staff talks to you about the specific opera, focusing on what is salient and meaningful, rather than explaining the often-labyrinthine plot.  As you eat, the chef gives you the inside skinny on what you are eating and how it was made, and after each course, soprano Ingela Onstad sings an aria from the opera symbolized on your plate, accompanied by Kirt Pavitt.

Soprano Ingela Onstad adds the perfect musical flair to every dish by performing select arias from each opera of the season.

For those of you who are unrepentant foodies, you will not only go home with all the recipes, but the chef will feed you information that changes the way you look at the food on your plate. In one breath, he bemoans the shortage of organic ingredients because of the drought in California, and one breath later he tells you never to use fresh tuna in a salad Nicoise. “That’s an American dream,” he confides. “In France, they can tuna in olive oil, but know that the best tuna is canned in Italy. It will change your life.” In a third breath he leans forward and says, “You may not know what to do with pits in pitted olives, but in France and Italy they just put them on the table. And as for anchovies, peoples’ eyes roll to the back of their heads when you say the word, so I just leave them out. And you may be surprised that I don’t use a lot of garlic in my cooking because it heavily influences everything that follows it.” As mesmerized diners chomp delicately on their salads, a perfectly-paired Gruet wine is served.

For the Mozart course, the chef explains why he uses Greek yoghurt, how he squeezes water out of cucumbers, and talks about the pickling of dolmas. When Onstad begins to sing, it’s as though her gorgeous voice wraps around the music the way the grape leaves wrap around the rice. “She is a singing dolma,” I whisper to my husband. “A singing Norwegian dolma,” he concurs.

The chef introduces each dish by describing the ingredients and the cooking process…all of which are opera-inspired!

From that moment on, a kind of synesthesia takes place. Onstad’s voice triggers the taste buds. As we imbibe the Rigoletto dish, the soprano, like the opera, seems to embody both innocence and passion, and as Onstad holds back before delivering the highest notes, the chef holds back for a moment before delivering the finale—apple pie with streusel topping.

How to sum up the event in one word? Fun. People are smiling. Happy. Laughing at chef’s uninhibited food monologues. Enjoying their musically-inspired tastings. Hanging with the soprano. Chatting with the pianist. For a beautiful moment in time, all is right with the universe.