Lee Hoiby Cooks Up Tasty Operas and Extra Helpings of Art Songs

Twenty years before actress Meryl Streep and author/director Nora Ephron brought Julia Child to the silver screen with “Julie & Julia,” composer Lee Hoiby put the famous chef on the operatic stage.  His operetta “Bon Appetit!” starred Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker) and debuted at the Kennedy Center in 1989 before going on to a successful run Off Broadway.

Like many of Hoiby’s other theatrical works, “Bon Appetit!” was created in collaboration with his companion Mark Shulgasser.  The couple have long lived in a far western nook of the Catskills, the little town of Callicoon, Sullivan County, New York, where Shulgasser also writes about astrology and runs a used bookstore.

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Composer Lee Hoiby and his partner/collaborator Mark Shulgasser at The Falls, Long Eddy, New York.

“Bon Appetit!” the opera runs about as long as an episode of “Bon Appetit!” the TV show (less than half an hour).  For the libretto, Shulgasser

went directly to the source and used Child’s own words, taken from two 1971 broadcasts.

Richard Strauss once said that he could set a knife and fork to music, but Hoiby seems to go one better, since the opera is about the making of a chocolate cake.  All of Child’s lovable foibles and self-deprecating humor come through. She puts egg yolks into a pan and then drops it on the kitchen floor and carries on undaunted.  She also sets up a race between an electric mixer and a hand-cranked one.  Hoiby wisely doesn’t interfere with the chef’s magic. There’s no additional jokes or layers of irony in the tuneful score, which includes a light and colorful orchestration.

“Bon Appetit!” was released last year on CD by Albany Records in a fine performance by soprano Kathryn Cowdrick. It’s one of a spate of recent recordings drawing on the vast catalog of 11 operas and dozens of art songs from the composer who turned 83 years old earlier this year.

Hoiby’s knack for selecting good texts is evident in two new discs of his songs. “A Pocket of Time” (Naxos) is a particularly radiant recording, with the composer at the piano accompanying soprano Julia Faulkner and baritone Andrew Garland. The generous recital features 22 songs that date from 1950 to 2007, when the recordings sessions took place. Hoiby’s exquisite craftsmanship and elegant yet unadorned American style is always present.

The range of poets includes Elizabeth Bishop, William Blake, Wallace Stevens and Thornton Wilder, among others.  “Lady of the Harbor” sets the Emma Lazarus text inscribed on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…”) to a noble and dignified melody, yet infuses it with an accompaniment that’s syncopated and jaunty, perhaps in imitation of the waves of the New York harbor.  The fantastical “Jabberwocky” (Lewis Carroll) goes against the expected and makes the text into an ominous warning.

I’m particularly drawn to Hoiby’s settings of Walt Whitman in “I Was There,” a cycle of five songs for baritone and piano written in 1988.  There’s Whitman’s adulation of masculine heroes (“O Captain! My Captain!”), his spiritual introspection (“A Clear Midnight”), and his exalted embrace of comrades (“Joy, Shipmate, Joy!”).  Unfortunately the melodic range of these songs seems a little high for Andrew Garland, or perhaps he’s just pushing too much and the strain comes through. I remain partial to the original recording by the lighter voiced baritone Peter Stewart (released on CRI in 1994), for whom Hoiby composed the cycle.

The other new disc, “Songs of Lee Hoiby,” comes from soprano Ursula Kleinecke-Boyer with pianist Maria Perez-Goodman (Albany Records).   The album features some of the same material, but there are also selections with texts by Wilfred Own, Ezra Pound, John Donne and e.e. cummings.  But despite the thoughtful program, the recording itself is not very satisfying. Kleinecke-Boyer has a large voice, probably better suited to opera, and fudges on much of the English diction.  The piano accompaniment, often so magical with Hoiby, is too recessive in the audio mix.

Since both of these new discs and the Stewart recording from the ‘90s all cover some of the same ground, it’s obvious that Hoiby has entered the repertoire of American singers. His biggest hit, appearing on all three discs, may be “Where the Music Comes From.” It’s a setting of Hoiby’s own poetry and might be considered a statement of the composer’s artistic mission. It reads in part:

I want to be where the music comes from,

Where the clock stops, where it’s now…

And to be one with the river flowing,

Breezes blowing, sky above,

And oh, I want to love.



2 Responses to “Lee Hoiby Cooks Up Tasty Operas and Extra Helpings of Art Songs”

  1. kcowdrick says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. Someone forwarded the site to me. It was an honor to do the Bon Appetit…. an honor to sing Julia’s delightful words and to have the music be so evocative of all the great things her program brought to public television. Thank you for your kind comments. It was even more delightful to meet with Lee and Marc while there were at our school. Life would not be worth living were it not for the splendor of chocolate cake.!
    Katie Cowdrick
    http://www.kathryncowdrick.com

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