Chop Chef, kitchen opera

A phantasmagorical opera about internet-charged cooking at the end of capitalism, how could I refuse?

Directors of Blush Opera (top to bottom): Luke Spicer, Jermaine Chau and Paul Smith

INEXPLICABLY, many friends “don’t like opera”. But they should have joined the audience for the final of only four performances of chamber opera Chop Chef at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, last Saturday.

Edging in age towards 30, the crowd might not have interspersed earnest applause with the occasional “brava”, but they whooped and stomped. More the Globe idea.

Surely Blush Opera (@blushopera) will arrange a further season of their competitive cooking show in song. I’d go again – this culturally-rich triumph demands more than one viewing.

Described as “clash of a highbrow form with lowbrow reality TV tropes and everyday language”, Chop Chef brings together seven great, mainly young singers and four-piece orchestra (clarinet, flute, cello and piano), conducted by Luke Spicer. 

The music is by Paul Smith, who is a senior lecturer in composition at the University of New England, an expert on anime and manga, and composer for toy piano. The libretto belongs to Julie Koh (@juliekoh), a satirical short-story author. Born in Sydney to Chinese-Malaysian parents, Koh studied politics and law, then quit a corporate law career to pursue writing, luckily for us.

The setting in a cooking competition studio allows extended fun with not just culinary obsession and television “reality”, but also racial and sexual stereotypes, and operatic musical forms with extended arias, satisfying choruses, and women, and the world, dying at the end.

True to both opera and tv formats, the six competitors reveal their back stories and dreams, and are “eliminated” in turn, each with a farewell aria. You might get a bit of the feel from “Studio 10”.

As to the characters, a successful, slim, Lean In corporate feminist with single-minded mottoes, Victoria (coloratura soprano Ayako Ohtake) returns as last year’s winner of Chop Chef. The “kawaii” Kitty (mezzo-soprano Jermaine Chau) has arrived in Chatswood via Happy Valley (a well-to-do suburb of Hong Kong, and racecourse). Her sob story is being born colour-blind, but now saved by her guide dog, a labradoodle. Kitty specialises in Hello Kitty milkshakes, refers to others as “babes”, and is doing it all for her labradoodle.

Kale (baritone Nick Geddes) is a Byron Bay influencer, whose form of address is “bruh”, and whose kale smoothies will put him in the league of other great inventors, such as Elon Musk. Andy (tenor Gavin Brown) is the “Asian fetishist”, who falls immediately in love with Kitty, and whose ambition is to take Asian fusion to the East. From Finland, Tom (bass-baritone Benjamin Caulkwell) is a gay, misogynistic lumbersexual into meat. Behind his deli door, the music will be pumping. Renée (soprano Lisa Cooper) is into vintage dresses and baking to make others happy, and sadly a loser, whose soufflé fails to rise (she does return glamorously in fascinator for the final bows, when we could have kept stomping and applauding).

The three stern judges, projected like Big Brother onto screens, are sung by the one baritone (David Hidden) in three different facial-hair disguises, and delightful accents.

The libretto carries far too many cultural references for any single audience member to pick up. It’d mean knowing cookery terms, millennial identities and their jargon, Puccini, Adam Smith, the tribulations of late capitalism, hedonistic philosophy, and no doubt stuff I didn’t even recognise. I did appreciate the transformation of Madama Butterfly into the “Asian fetishist”, who has discovered Nagasaki, and awaits his thankless lover’s return.

Rather than repeat lines, as usual in opera, the libretto keeps moving, constantly throwing off allusions and jokes. One extended aria concerns turducken, with animals swallowing animals, until the fly has to find its way out of the whale. The judges set a challenge to cook an authentically authentic dish – declared to be authentically authentic Italian. This is the occasion for a long operatic burlesque, hilariously stringing together every Italian word you’ve ever heard.

That verbal intensity could have left the music merely as backing, with little chance for a tune, but Smith has the confidence to more than hold his own, surely thrilled at the commitment and skill of all musicians and singers.

The wonderful singers can even act without hamming it up, presumably because they so readily related to the show’s content, and also to the credit of the directors of the seemingly flawless whole, Kenneth Moraleda and Nicole Pingon, and team.

I’ve possibly laughed more at the theatre, been moved by operas more, found topical revue more telling, but for up-to-the-minute laughs, sentiment, and satire… Chop Chef cries out for a new season.

Ayako Ohtake (soprano)

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