Feasting and Fasting in Opera: From Renaissance Banquets to the Callas Diet

Feasting and Fasting in Opera: From Renaissance Banquets to the Callas Diet
By Dr. Pierpaolo Polzonetti
A review by Greysolynne Hyman

Music and food are two of life’s greatest pleasures. Pierpaolo Polzonetti offers an explanation of their relationship in his newest book, Feasting and Fasting in Opera. He traces the evolution of opera and eating (or not) from performances during Renaissance banquets through the works of Verdi and Puccini.

Renaissance banquets could be very elaborate. For example, Archbishop Ippolito II d’Este’s affair for fifty-four nobles in May, 1529 coordinated 150 dishes with comedies, dancing, and various combinations of singers and musicians. It was but a short step from such entertainments to courtly opera.

Audience members continued to eat and drink during performances. Since an opera might last for five to eight hours, this behavior is understandable. People also visited one another in the box seats and gambled in the casinos and card rooms at opera houses. It was not until late in the 18th century that Paris audiences began consuming refreshments only in the hall outside the auditorium during intermission. Eating in cafes or restaurants before or after performances also became fashionable.

A proponent of gastromusicology (relationships between food and music), Professor Polzonetti focuses on the role of food in opera. According to him, the uses of food and/or drink distinguish opera buffa (comedy) from opera seria (drama). In comedy, they are consumed; in drama, they are not (unless they are poison).

He provides seven “laws” for operatic gastromusicology (page 170):

  • No meal can be sad
  • No starvation can be happy
  • A shared meal or drink is a socially cohesive event
  • The presence of food or drink excludes immediate catastrophe (unless the food or drink is poisoned)
  • The act of feasting is in itself morally neutral, but a feasting group (or individual) is morally negative when contrasted with a fasting group or individual
  • A fasting individual is a hero; a hero is always a sober person
  • Music and text may lie, but gastronomic signs never do

In addition, he presents the social functions of food in opera (page 170):

  • Ritual (including religious meals or fasts)
  • Social (establishing or breaking relationships)
  • Intimacy (characters exchanging food, often to establish a romantic relationship)
  • Denotative (revealing identity)
  • Medicinal (affecting the mind or body)
  • Dietary (shaping body size and image)

Throughout the book, he uses examples from multiple operas to confirm these laws and to demonstrate the functions of food in opera. The functions often overlap, as in Carlo Goldoni’s Il filosopho di campagna, which involves a vegetarian seduction. Lesbina sings to her master Don Tritemio in detail of the delicious salad she is making and invites him to eat it and thus begin a relationship with her. The salad ingredients serve not only a social function but also those of intimacy, identity, medicine, and perhaps even diet. Professor Polzonetti leans heavily toward examples of Italian operas, although he gives Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte detailed attention.

The chapter on Maria Callas’ diet (raw fruits, vegetables, and meat) might seem oddly specific but it epitomizes the literal embodiment of an opera singer’s roles – for example, Mimi in La Bohème and, especially, Violetta in La Traviata. A tall woman, Maria Callas had been heavy in her youth but her diet of raw foods led to a slim figure suited to the roles of the tubercular heroines. In a case of life imitating art, Ms. Callas’ introduction of her lover to her husband almost perfectly mirrored the brindisi (toasts) in La Traviata when Violetta introduces Baron Duphol to Alfredo.

This book definitely has a scholarly approach with its 55 pages of endnotes and a 29-page bibliography but the vivid and detailed descriptions of so many characters, roles, and scenes in support of Professor Polzonetti’s concepts provide a wealth of information about opera. Just be sure to have a snack before reading this book!