Feasting and Fasting in Opera: From Renaissance Banquets to the Callas Diet

Univ. of Chicago. Nov. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780226804958. $45. MUSIC
In this fascinating study Polzonetti (music, Univ. of California, Davis; Italian Opera in the Age of the American Revolution) argues, “In opera, as in real-life society, food not only is fuel or nurture but has meanings and purposes that make it a defining component of human identities and cultures.” The book starts by looking at opera’s origins and its place in social life, particularly focusing on “what audiences eat and how.” Readers may be surprised to learn that until the 1800s it was common for opera audiences to eat and drink in the theater during performances (largely unheard of today). Polzonetti also examines depictions of food in opera (“what characters eat and how”) and looks at the history of coffee and chocolate and their role in operatic works, from Bach to Puccini; another section has the title “Verdi and the Laws of Gastromusicology.” Finally, Polzonetti discusses opera’s demands on performers’ bodies—particularly women—illustrated by the extreme diet and weight loss efforts undertaken by soprano Maria Callas in order to play the role of consumptive Violetta in La Traviata.
VERDICT A rich and rewarding read for opera fans and anyone interested in Western European cultural and culinary history.
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