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Feasting and Fasting in Opera

From Renaissance Banquets to the Callas Diet

Feasting and Fasting in Opera shows that the consumption of food and drink is an essential component of opera, both on and off stage.

In this book, opera scholar Pierpaolo Polzonetti explores how convivial culture shaped the birth of opera and opera-going rituals until the mid-nineteenth century, when eating and drinking at the opera house were still common. Through analyses of convivial scenes in operas, the book also shows how the consumption of food and drink, and sharing or the refusal to do so, define characters’ identity and relationships.
Feasting and Fasting in Opera moves chronologically from around 1480 to the middle of the nineteenth century, when Wagner’s operatic reforms banished refreshments during the performance and mandated a darkened auditorium and absorbed listening. The book focuses on questions of comedy, pleasure, embodiment, and indulgence—looking at fasting, poisoning, food disorders, body types, diet, and social, ethnic, and gender identities—in both tragic and comic operas from Monteverdi to Puccini. Polzonetti also sheds new light on the diet Maria Callas underwent in preparation for her famous performance as Violetta, the consumptive heroine of Verdi’s La traviata. Neither food lovers nor opera scholars will want to miss Polzonetti’s page-turning and imaginative book.

336 pages | 14 halftones, 1 line drawings | 6 x 9

Food and Gastronomy

Music: General Music


“Who knew that food and opera are, and have always been, intimately connected? With his humanistic learning, linguistic virtuosity, and trademark tasty wit, Polzonetti takes us from classical texts to cannibalism and on to Callas. Historical recipes are a bonus for readers interested in a more multi-modal experience of Polzonetti’s brilliant work.”

Mary Hunter, Bowdoin College

“Polzonetti cleverly weaves together the history of opera with a beloved culture of delicious Italian food, and then some!”

Francesca Zambello, Artistic and General Director of The Glimmerglass Festival and Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera

“Opera and feasting go splendidly together: we want to combine an evening at the opera with a good dinner, even if we are no longer allowed, as we once were, to take our refreshments during a performance. Even so, no one until now has explored the proximity of opera and food in such depth and with such illuminating insights as Pierpaolo Polzonetti. This is the book to turn to if you want to understand that we owe the birth of opera not only to the learned disputations in Renaissance academies, but also to the elaborate multi-media banqueting practices of the period. Polzonetti is attuned to the significance of what and how the audiences ate during performances until the practice was eliminated during the nineteenth century, victim of middle-class propriety. He is just as attuned to the significance of what and how was consumed by the protagonists of Italianate opera from Monteverdi through Mozart, to Verdi and Puccini. This book offers a feast as delicious as it is nutritious, but be forewarned: reading it will make you hungry.”

Karol Berger, Stanford University

“Food and the opera have certainly always gone together—before, during, and after the show. Today, eating at the opera is no longer considered respectful, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those restrictions are lifted in the near future. Theatergoers would be jealous of the spreads that are backstage in the dressing room areas, and even the little snacks that some performers hide in their costumes in case of an emergency. I just love this book. It’s making me hungry!”

Nathan Gunn, co-director, Lyric Theatre at Illinois

"Producers of modern entertainments should find useful information about alternative uses of food and drinks, especially if they are considering re-introducing feasting into operatic performances. Thus, this book is for researchers in this field and for opera-buffs."

Pennsylvania Literary Journal

”Polzonetti allows himself some nostalgia for the world we have lost, including the experience of eating at the opera, and speculates that operagoers of the past may have possessed ‘a better economy of attention’, which ‘did not include pretending to be engaged when they were not ‘."

Times Literary Supplement

"The meat of the book is the role of food and drink in an opera’s narrative and music."

UC Davis College of Letters and Science

Table of Contents

Prologue: What Is Food Doing in Opera? vii

Part I Convivial Beginnings
1 The Symposium and the Birth of Opera 000
2 The Renaissance Banquet as Multimedia Art 000
3 Orpheus at the Cardinal’s Table 000
4 Eating at the Opera House

Part II “Tastes Funny”: Tragic and Comic Meals from Monteverdi to Mozart
5 Comedy as Embodiment in Monteverdi and Mozart 000
6 The Insatiable: Tyrants and Libertines 000
7 Indulging in Comic Opera: Gastronomy as Identity 000

Part III The Effects of Feasting and Fasting
8 Coffee and Chocolate from Bach to Puccini 000
9 Verdi and the Laws of Gastromusicology 000
10 The Callas Diet 000
Acknowledgments 000
Notes 000
Bibliography 000
Index 000

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