In the summer of 2022, a second-hand bookshop in Oslo was having its closing sale. In the very back, past the classical music biographies and encyclopedias, Aksel found The Metropolitan Opera Cookbook (1988). He dropped everything and took to Twitter, and a few weeks later, amid Kevin’s transatlantic move to New York City, they once again found themselves cooking operatically.
Aksel Tollåli (AT): So our last operatic dinner party closely preceded the flaming PR disaster of the diva du jour.
Kevin Ng (KN): Well, all of tonight’s divas are buried, so we should be on safer territory.
AT: It’s funny—despite the cookbook featuring a selection of 180 recipes from an equally diverse range of Met opera stars and staff, we somehow both selected only recipes from sopranos.
KN: Trust the homosexuals to do their job.
AT: With the exception, of course, of Aage Haugland’s frankly terrifying-sounding Ho-jo-to-ho Cure, which I think we both should make and compare notes.
KN: As someone who is medical professional-adjacent, I cannot possibly recommend that you try this at home.
AT: Which is exactly why we should make this. For science, or something.
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AT: It’s so incredibly ‘80s.
KN: For reference, the hors d’oeuvres section includes recipes like Millicent Hacker’s Baked Clams and Mrs. Donald D. Harrington’s Salmon Mousse.
AT: It couldn’t be more New York if it tried.
KN: This era preceded both of us, and it’s so interesting to see how the opera world wanted to portray itself at the time.
AT: This book is really the last gasp of opera as the hyper-luxurious art form it once pretended to be, the highly varnished Met aesthetic. It seems like such a relic, even when it was published in the late ‘80s.
KN: Miles away from Anna Netrebko doing her shopping on Instagram, though let’s not get into that whole topic again.
AT: I can absolutely see Renée Fleming in this context, though. Soufflés à la Renée.
KN: Can we also discuss the photos?
AT: I particularly love the two-page spreads in each chapter, with the dishes accompanied by various memorabilia. Birgit Nilsson’s gravlax is shown alongside a picture of her as Brünnhilde and also, because why the fuck not, the gun she used in “Fidelio.”
KN: And Joan Sutherland’s Charlotte d’aubergines is shown with the dagger from “Lucia.” Loving how absolutely normal these pictures are.
AT: The filter is so soft you can barely make out the food. It’s a haze of pastels and floral patterned porcelain.
KN: And then there are the photos of the singers. Birgit Nilsson with her garden shears, Astrid Varnay inspecting napkins, Régine Crespin buying fish, Edita Gruberová slicing dumplings, Eleanor Steber cutting an onion…
AT: Not to mention Anna Moffo in a henhouse for whatever reason.
KN: Everyone looks so intensely uncomfortable, and I love it.
Choosing the menus
AT: Some worthy contenders here. Frederica von Stade’s Soupe à Sara—quite a normal-sounding pea soup, apart from the addition of a glass of champagne before serving.
KN: Champagne seems to be a recurring theme. Brigitte Fassbaender’s Quick and Easy Fish Filets has you marinate your filets in champagne and curry powder. “Champagne does make a difference,” Brigitte commands.
AT: Some go completely off the rails: Chairman of the board James S. Marcus offers Chicken and Vegetables Turandot, a “culinary rendition of Act II, Scene 2” complete with riddles.
KN: The reigning Met diva of the time, Renata Scotto, provides a recipe for a delicious-sounding Tagliatelle with Walnut Sauce, but it just wasn’t quite camp enough to include in this article. Which is shocking if you’ve ever seen Scotto in just about any role.
AT: Oscar de la Renta’s (!) Sour Cream and Chive Soufflé (!!): Now that’s camp.
The dinner parties
KN: Let’s start with the appetizers. Erna Berger and Bidú Sayão were both coloraturas active in the ‘40s and ‘50s. They exemplify a type of soubrette singing that seems to have become unfashionable today.
AT: The real question is how they cook.
KN: Bananas Erna Berger sounds absolutely demented.
AT: Not, as I initially thought, a dessert. Sautéed bananas with curry powder wrapped in ham.
KN: “For a snack or a light lunch,” Berger merrily trills.
AT: It was surprisingly…good? At least, it wasn’t bad. Like a poor man’s version of bacon-wrapped dates, should you have neither to hand.
KN: Curry powder seems to have been all the rage in the ’80s, because Bidú Sayão includes it in her zucchini soup. I was skeptical about this one, especially in its form as a cold soup. But it was absolutely delicious—zingy and fresh, the heaviness of the cream nicely offset by the spiced zucchini. I’d absolutely make this again.
KN: Eleanor Steber’s The Shell Game was a bit of a disappointment, especially since I was expecting an actual game.
AT: Perhaps she could have picked up a trick or two from James S. Marcus’s Turandot riddles.
KN: Sadly not—just a dry pasta casserole. It’s hard to go wrong with meat, tomatoes, and pasta, but the addition of pitted black olives and 16 ounces of grated cheddar put it firmly into retro mode.
AT: Funny, considering that she had some of her greatest successes in Italy. “Fanciulla del West,” indeed.
KN: I also forgot that the whole concept of pasta al dente is a recent phenomenon in America, so it was somehow both dry and soggy.
AT: Meanwhile, Joan Sutherland’s Charlotte d’aubergines, with not-quite-as-retro layers of eggplants, tomato sauce, and yogurt, were the big hit of the evening. It did need a few more minutes in the oven, but it was very tasty.
KN: Onto the main courses, which were both controversial in the best way.
AT: I thought that after Netrebko’s Party Pork, we needed more party meats.
KN: Leonie Rysanek’s Party Veal was, sadly, not at the same level. The meat and mushrooms were fine, but it was absolutely overloaded with capers. There was also a weird sour cream béchamel which was atrocious. It was incredibly heavy.
AT: Wagnerian indeed. On the other side of the soprano spectrum, I attempted Lily Pons’s Crêpes de boeuf.
KN: I assumed these would be crêpes with some sort of beef filling, but no—finely minced bits of cooked beef is added into the batter itself!
AT: This was the evening’s big fail. My cooktop gave up as I was about to fry the crêpes, and so they turned out quite thick and rubbery and not very nice at all. Ended up scrapping this dish and having my boyfriend hastily whip up a salad to go with the eggplants instead.
KN: I somehow suspect the crêpes would have ended up thick and rubbery even had your cooktop behaved itself.
AT: Licia Albanese’s Ricotta Cheesecake was quite lovely! I was worried the filling wouldn’t be sweet enough, with just a tablespoon of sugar, but it was just right.
KN: Meanwhile, Maria Callas’s Sponge Cake, But Not Quite It—I Like It Better was as much of a disaster as the title would suggest. Fortunately, the recipe was far less cryptic than the title.
AT: I love that there’s an entire essay prefacing the recipe, concluding with “That was Maria Callas—she always found her own way.”
KN: Perhaps she should have stuck with someone else’s way, because the cake deflated and melted all over my oven before I could take a picture of it. I ordered ice cream instead.
AT: Now for a joint nightcap, courtesy of Danish bass Aage Haugland?
KN: I must admit I didn’t know of him, but he seems to have been the Baron Ochs and Hunding of choice at the time. Anyway, this recipe sounds treacherous. Is combining beer and garlic a Scandinavian thing?
AT: Absolutely not. Stay away. Far away. There was no way boiling hot beer mixed with garlic, egg yolks and aquavit was ever going to taste nice, but holy fuck, this was vile.
KN: Also, where is one supposed to buy chlorophyll tablets?
AT: Aage suggests drinking “as hot as possible, in bed.” I’d suggest being near a toilet. ¶
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