“Fancy eating lobster in the middle of the week, standing up,” sings the Maid, half-scandalised, half-titillated by the casual excess of the Duchess of Argyll in Thomas Adès’s 1995 opera, Powder Her Face. Lobster may not be the amuse-bouche for which the opera and its orally-fixated antiheroine are best remembered but Philip Hensher’s libretto elegantly conjures the frigid gleaming luxury of mid-century Mayfair in its references to food “shining like water, all under aspic/Cut fruit in aspic, vegetable shapes, whole chicken/Fish swimming in aspic, caught in stiff water.”

The foodstuffs that are name-checked in opera tell us much about the characters who order them and consume them, and sometimes a little about the composers who set them to music. Consider the banquet for the May Day festival in Loxford, Suffolk, where the virginal hero of Albert Herring is to be crowned May King. Originally set in the nineteenth century, and based on Maupassant’s Le rosier de Madame Husson, Britten’s comedy features a spread fit for the time of its 1947 premiere: sausage rolls, cheese straws, jelly, treacle tart and pink blancmange. The audience at the Glyndebourne premiere might have eaten something more sophisticated but Britten was fond of what we might call “nursery food” (essentially Edwardian, or even Victorian puddings) and contributed a recipe for Dark Treacle Jelly to Adrian Ball’s compendium, Food of Love (1971).

After World War Two continental foodstuffs and recipes flooded British and American culture. Cookbooks new and old afforded a form of gastronomic armchair tourism. Premiered in 1948, Leonard Bernstein’s song-cycle La Bonne cuisine sets four recipes from Emile Dumont’s belle époque classic La Bonne cuisine française (tout ce qui a rapport à la table, manuel-guide pour la ville et la campagne) to music: Plum Pudding, Queues de Boeuf, Tavouk Guenksis and Civet à toute vitesse. Two key ingredients from the recipe for rabbit are sadly missing – nutmeg and a glass of brandy – but the speed, heat and vigour of the method are captured in song.

The spirit of Elizabeth David hovers over Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement (1954) as two down-at-heel aristocrats in Chelsea attempt to ply the Grand Duchess of Monteblanco with melba toast and tomates monteblanco in an effort to marry their daughter into royalty. As sung in the opera the recipe calls for rosemary, garlic, mushrooms, “six beautiful tomatoes”, gruyère and olive oil, a commodity more readily available at the chemist’s than the grocer’s when David published her first cookery book in 1950. Where is Monteblanco? Probably somewhere in the southern Balkans, like Lehár’s Pontevedro. A reference to cold cherry soup in the libretto underlines how swiftly British tastes were changing: the famed Hungarian restaurant The Gay Hussar had opened in Soho only the year before.

Of the post-war foodie operas Samuel Barber’s Vanessa (1958) is the most amply detailed, opening with a scene in which an elaborate menu is planned: potage crème aux perles; écrevisse à la bordelaise; langoustines grillées, sauce aux huîtres; faisan braisé au porto; palombes rôties natures; gateau d’amandes au miel. This was the year in which Julia Child completed the first manuscript of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Paris was considered the gastronomic capital of the world, in America, if not in France. Giancarlo Menotti’s libretto for Vanessa further specifies the wines that are to be served with dinner: Montrachet and Romanée-Conti. 

From the wine that Giorgetta serves to the stevedores at sunset in Il tabarro (young, rough and red in the imagination, like Giorgetta’s lover, Luigi) to the restorative hot wine in Falstaff, the champagne in Act I of La traviata and the vino spumeggiante in Cavalleria rusticana, alcohol loosens tongues, sometimes fatally. Words of love or truth are vouchsafed, and sometimes words of violence, but references to specific wines are surprisingly rare. The so-called ‘Champagne Aria’ (Fin ch’han dal vino) in Don Giovanni makes no mention of champagne. It is merely an injunction to get Masetto and his mates so drunk that they do not notice the Don’s seduction of Zerlina.

As the musicologist Pierpaolo Polzonetti observed in his essay Eating and Drinking in Opera: Traviata and the Callas Diet, the pheasant that the Don chooses for his supper with the Commendatore signifies “the womaniser’s artistocratic status, as well as his nature as a hunter of women.” So far, so redolent still lives, each composition of animal, vegetable and mineral a web of meanings.

The kicker comes in the Don’s choice of wine, “Versa il vino! Eccellente Marzemino!” an import to Spain, where the opera is set, and a demonstration of wealth and power. Marzemino would have been conspicuously expensive in Seville, as it would if bought by Mozart’s audiences in Prague and Vienna. Scarpia, too, in Act II of Tosca, favours imported wine over local, with a bottle of Spanish red, though his dinner of soup is modest in a city as rich in culinary heritage as Rome.

A giddy number of delicacies and comfort dishes are added to Alcindoro’s bill at Café Momus at the end of Act II of La bohème: stew, custard, venison, turkey, ratafia and the ubiquitous lobster. Outside in the Latin Quarter, street vendors sell sweet fritters, pastries, oranges and roast chestnuts, competing with Parpignol to be heard. The Bohemians in Henri Murger’s original story are more decadent yet, knocking back brandy, punch, champagne, burgundy and the purple liqueur, Parfait d’amour, at their Christmas Eve celebration.

Christmas Day, mentioned neither by Murger nor Puccini, was presumably a washout. But indulgence almost always leads to remorse, as the children in Hänsel und Gretel discover, tempted by the scent of gingerbread, marzipan, marshmallow, rice pudding, figs and chocolate evoked in Humperdinck’s creamy calorific score. Far better to take the wild berries home to mother, and enjoy the simple produce that Peter has brought back in his sack: ham, butter, flour, sausages, coffee beans and fourteen eggs.

Whether you prefer haute cuisine or nursery food, Classical, Romantic or modern opera, what is undeniable is that food and music are sensory pleasures. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the tastiest musical morsels come from Rossini, whose girth in midlife retirement in Paris is readily explained by the recipe for Tournedos Rossini.

A confection of fillet steak, foie gras, truffle, butter and madeira, it was created for the composer by the chef Marie-Antoine Carême, also the pioneer of presenting food in aspic, a theatrical display of haute cuisine technique. (Julia Child includes a chapter on this in Mastering the Art.) Aside from the pasta used to pacify the pasha in L’Italiana in Algeri, Rossini’s status as gourmet – or gourmand – is sealed in music in Volume 4 of Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age). Here, in miniature form, are waltzing almonds and hazlenuts, pirouetting radishes, marching anchovies and a theme and variation on butter, glossy and irresistible. Delicious as they are, please indulge in moderation.


Anna Picard is Opera Holland Park’s Research and Repertoire consultant. She writes for The Times and Times Literary Supplement and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio Three’s Record Review programme.