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Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre whips ups decadent evening of chocolate swirls

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Gazette Staff/SourceMedia  ::   UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 3:12 pm   ::  

Sweet music filled the halls, atrium and cooking lab in the Hotel at Kirkwood Center on Saturday night in a delectable  evening of divas and desserts with the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre.

Stir in  some delicious dish from Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of public radio’s “The Splendid Table, and you have the most amazing recipe for success with “The Art of Chocolate.”

The atrium’s atmosphere was simply electric afterward, as 250 patrons gathered for champagne, heavenly truffles and nibbles, a book signing and lively conversation. Everyone was buzzing about what a wonderful event the opera company and guests had concocted.

The evening began with singing usher Brian Dykes leading half of the audience  to the cooking lab for the hilarious one-act opera “Bon Appetit,” starring Cedar Rapids native Karen Brunssen as Julia Child, while lovely soprano Stephanie Michalicek ushered the other half to the atrium for another short piece, “The Face on the Barroom Floor.”

At 8:15 p.m., everyone gathered in the hotel ballroom where Rossetto Kasper regaled us with tidbits of chocolate’s colorful history and tales of her encounters with Julia Child. Around 9 p.m., audience members again divided for their second course of opera, followed by the dessert reception.

A standing ovation goes to the opera company for thinking outside the box to serve up this sampler featuring the many flavors of chocolate, from sweet to bittersweet.

Brunssen captured the very essence of the late Julia Child we knew from TV, as she recreated an episode and created a simply divine French chocolate cake, washed down with red wine. Brunssen, who has performed all over the world and teaches voice and opera at Northwestern University in Chicago, has not only mastered Child’s distinctive speaking voice, she also sings with a hint of Child in her voice.

The piece is a comedy, lovingly lampooning all the haphazard mannerisms which continue to endear viewers through PBS reruns of Child’s venerated cooking show. Brunssen whipped up the cake with abandon, grabbing bits of butter with her fingers, not-quite separating egg whites, yolks and shells, slopping through each step and wiping her hands and flinging chocolate on her once-white chef’s apron. The fact that she sang beautifully, accompanied by Marita Wolgast on electronic keyboard, was the icing on the cake.

On the other side of the hotel complex, three members of the opera’s Young Artists program dazzled viewers with a polar opposite experience. Soprano Channing Connell, tenor Brian Kuhl and lyric baritone Andrew Wannigman kept us spellbound through parallel stories of the deadly consequences of a barroom brawl.

The first took place in the 19th century, as a young swain who couldn’t pay his tab offered instead to draw on the floor the face of the only woman he’s ever loved. It’s the young chanteuse singing in the bar, and the object of the bartender’s affections. He draws a gun, which the artist grabs, and in the tussle, the woman is shot. Fast-forward 100 years, where the same scenario plays out.

All three Young Artists were superb not only in their glorious voices, but in their portrayals, as well. Tony Nickle on grand piano added elegance through the many faces of jazz, from ragtime saloon to avant-garde.

To further whet our appetites, Rossetto Kasper was nothing short of captivating, delightful and so well versed in her subjects of chocolate and Child. She deftly wove the most fascinating tales of the liquid confection making its way from the Americas to European royalty, often with deadly results, since chocolate’s naturally bitter edge masked the bitter taste of poison. She then gave us very personal glimpses of the woman who brought couture to American kitchens, recalling her midnight chats in Child’s kitchen over chocolate, wine and gin to their earlier meeting in Brooklyn, when Child calmed Rossetto Kasper’s frayed nerves behind the scenes at a department store cooking demonstration.

Again, I say bravo to Daniel Kleinknecht and his Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre staff for creating such a marvelous and unusual evening’s entertainment.

- Diana Nollen

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