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Ahead of 'Falstaff' performances, L.A. Opera talks turkey — literally

Media IndustryPolitics and GovernmentRiveraNicole Miller

The L.A. Opera invited the press in to talk turkey.

Not figuratively, as in shop talk about contraltos and coloratura.

Turkey as in the cooked bird — which has a part to play in "Falstaff."

The opera is staging six performances of Verdi's comic masterpiece to celebrate his 200th birthday.

For each one, it turns out, prop master Allen Tate will cook a turkey.

Each bird will roast in the backstage oven for five hours before making its debut in Act II, Scene I.

News of the "Falstaff" turkeys gave opera staff an idea: Why not hold their first food-centric press event?

So they invited food writers and bloggers to stop by Tuesday afternoon to learn a little something about edible props.

As the group gathered in the chandeliered lobby of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a waiter circulated with a tray of cookies covered with slivers of almond and dusted with powdered sugar. They were, everyone was told, Elizabethan almond dainties, adaptations of a confection popular in the 1600s.

They'd been baked by communications director Gary Murphy and his partner, Jason La Padura. Murphy handed out copies of the recipe printed in appropriately Old English font.

Cookies eaten, the assemblage was introduced to Rupert Hemmings, the opera's senior director of production, who said that if food is to be used in an opera, planning has to start months in advance.

"If we have to have food actually eaten on stage, then we have to start consulting with the singer way ahead of time. What will they eat? Are they allergic to something? Do they not like to eat? Will they pretend to eat? How much do they want to eat?"

Hemmings didn't use the word, but when everyone proceeded backstage, they passed under a yellow warning sign that read "DIVA CROSSING" and featured an image of a stout, spear-and-shield-bearing Wagnerian Valkyrie.

"Falstaff," whose story is adapted from two Shakespeare plays — "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and "Henry IV" — is in part about "appetite in all its forms," said the production's director, Lee Blakeley.

The title character is a corpulent man, he said, "who's living beyond his means." In the early 17th century, when Shakespeare's plays were written, Blakeley said, turkeys would have been status symbols, as recent imports from the New World.

Turkeys also, he said, fit the production's autumnal theme, as does the molassesy English parkin cake that he requested as another edible prop. The cake is a specialty of Yorkshire, which happens to be where he is from.

It makes sense, Blakeley and Hemmings said, to choose edible props you like. After all, while the singers might take a bite or two onstage, when the curtain falls, there are often plenty of spoils for the crew.

This point was illustrated at a backstage table laden with food props for the afternoon dress rehearsal.

On it were apples that would be tossed around onstage by young lovers Nannetta and Fenton, as well as gingerbread made from a Trader Joe's mix — apparently a substitute for Blakeley's parkin cake.

A whole turkey sat surrounded by orange slices, one of its legs pre-cut so that Falstaff could easily grab it in a scene at the Garter Inn. He would then, the group was told, hand the leg to Mistress Quickly, who would take a bite before exiting through a trap door.

Also on the table was what looked like a gnawed-on turkey leg, which was what Mistress Quickly would be holding when she next appeared.

The rest of the bird would be untouched and up for grabs backstage.

Before the behind-the-scenes visit was over, the group got to meet two of the performers.

Carmen Giannattasio, a soprano, plays one of the women Falstaff woos. In her off hours she writes a food blog — in Italian. "What do you think about Rivera?" she asked the visitors when she learned they were food writers who could give her restaurant tips.

Ronnita Nicole Miller, who plays Mistress Quickly, has the most food-heavy role. In the course of the opera, she performs with a basket of fish, a piece of cake, the turkey leg and oat cookies.

"The turkey leg presents a big challenge because I have to take a huge bite and then be ready to sing," she said. "So there's always a glass of water hidden on the stage somewhere, just in case."

Asked if she'd acted with a turkey before, she grinned broadly and said, "Well, a ham maybe."

With this, everyone laughed. She had won over her audience.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Media IndustryPolitics and GovernmentRiveraNicole Miller
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