Catherine Cook reprises her role as Julia Child in a fundraiser for Opera Parallèle at Hayes Street Grill. (Courtesy Brian Staufenbiel)

Catherine Cook plays Julia Child in “Bon Appétit’

Mezzo-soprano sings and bakes in comic opera

The old adage has it that drama’s easy while comedy is hard. But mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook makes comedy look like, well, like a piece of cake.

Cook, who has made dozens of appearances with San Francisco Opera and other opera companies across the country, is one of the brightest comic lights on the Bay Area opera scene.

Now she’s returning to one of her favorite roles, as one of the greatest — and funniest — chefs of all time.

In “Bon Appétit,” she’ll play Julia Child, whose long-running television series “The French Chef” was undoubtedly one of the best and most theatrical cooking shows ever. She’ll reprise the role — one she’s performed a number of times — as part of Opera Parallèle’s fundraiser next week at Hayes Street Grill.

Cook has been wowing audiences since the early 1990s, singing comprimario (supporting) roles to perfection. Most recently, she excelled as the servant Marcellina in San Francisco Opera’s fall production of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” and took a brilliant turn as the wily Mrs. Peachum in West Edge Opera’s “ThreePenny Opera.” Both performances left audiences limp with laughter.

“Bon Appétit,” she says, is an entirely different kettle of bouillabaisse.

Composed in 1989 by the late American composer Lee Hoiby, with libretto by Julia Child and Mark Shulgasser, the one-act opera/theater piece recreates a “French Chef” episode in which Julia bakes a chocolate cake. Set in a Hollywood studio in the 1960s, and accompanied by pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi, the show’s only about 20 minutes long, but a lot happens in those 20 minutes.

“It’s short, but it’s very intricate and very intense,” says Cook, who first took on the role for an Opera Parallele event a few years back at the Boxing Room. “It’s a really fun piece and to play her is just a blast. It’s based on that actual episode, and the script is almost verbatim. So you’re singing, you’re baking a cake. There’s a script, but there is an element of improvisation; if the eggs don’t crack, or the butter doesn’t melt, things happen.” (Note: The cake will be served post-performance.)

In Child’s original broadcasts, helpers were crouched under the counter, passing ingredients and implements to the chef. Cook laughs as she recalls an earlier performance with Opera Parallele. The company’s director, Brian Staufenbiel, was under the counter for that one. “I handed him something and hit him in the head,” says Cook. “So it does get a little crazy.”

“Bon Appétit” is fizzy and fun, and Cook says it’s true to the spirit of Child and her show. “She really made cooking fun and accessible,” she said.

In May, Cook will take on the role of Mama in Opera Parallele’s much-anticipated production of the Stewart Wallace opera, “Harvey Milk.” And she’ll return to San Francisco Opera during the 20-21 season in one of her signature roles, Berta, in the company’s revival of “The Barber of Seville.”

For now, though, she’s happy to be back in Julia’s world, baking that cake.

“I was always such a huge fan,” she said. “I still fall into that thing where I go online and watch episode after episode – before you know it, three hours have gone by.

“So for me, doing this is a dream. I love doing text-driven pieces in English, and to portray someone like Julia – it’s what I love to do. I want people to see the episode, and to see how great she was. If I can do that, I’ve accomplished my goal.”

IF YOU GO

Bon Appétit!

Presented by Opera Parallèle

When: 5 p.m. Feb. 16; 6 p.m. Feb. 17

Where: Hayes Street Grill, 320 Hayes St., S.F.

Tickets: $300 (includes cocktails, dinner, performance)

Contact: (415) 626-6279, operaparallele.org

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