By Will Broaddus
---- — UPDATE: Since this article's publication, a change has been made to the program. Chef Bill Collins will replace Christopher DeStefano of Christopher’s Table. Formerly of Beverly, Collins will present “All About Chocolate” Sweet Secrets and Samplings for the audience to enjoy.
DANVERS — Maybe walking and chewing gum at the same time is not so hard to do. But try singing an opera while you’re baking a flourless chocolate cake.
That is the challenge faced by D’Anna Fortunato, a mezzo-soprano and professor of voice at New England Conservatory of Music, when she performs in “Bon Appetit” this Saturday at the Danvers home of John Archer.
“It’s unusual in that one is cooking, and that one is the only person on stage performing,” said Fortunato, whose career includes appearances with the top 10 American symphony orchestras. “It also includes some speaking, and some what they call ‘sprechstimme’ — speaking on pitch — which gives a little more lilting, musical flavor to the speaking.”
The opera’s only character is America’s famous chef, Julia Child, and its libretto is based on an episode of “The French Chef,” the television show in which Child taught Americans how to make continental cuisine.
Saturday’s performance is a fundraiser for Music at Eden’s Edge, the North Shore chamber ensemble, whose pianist, Naoko Sugiyama, will play the accompaniment.
Along with the music, chef Bill Collins, formerly of Beverly, will present “All About Chocolate” Sweet Secrets and Samplings for the audience to enjoy. Collins, who has appeared on many television shows, formerly cooked at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston and then went on to work at Harbor Sweets in Salem, where he was in charge of new product development. As a personal chef, his clients have included many professionals including New York Times bestselling author Michael Palmer.
The event will also feature a silent auction.
Fortunato first performed “Bon Appetit” 10 years ago at the Smithsonian Institution, when Child’s Cambridge kitchen was installed there as an exhibit.
The opera, which lasts about 25 minutes, closely follows the action of one episode of Child’s show, as well as her recipe for Le Gateau au Chocolat L’eminence Brune.
“This is completely unique, in that everything is done according to the libretto,” Fortunato said. “It’s ‘running music,’ it sounds like somebody doing some physical activity. It replicates stirring egg whites.”
“Bon Appetit” was composed in 1989 by Lee Hoiby, whom Fortunato remembers as “a recluse living on a farm in Pennsylvania.”
“He wrote mostly beautiful, lyrical songs and operas,” she said. “This is a stretch for him, but there are some really pretty places.”
Where the opera succeeds brilliantly is in capturing the unique character of Julia Child.
“The spirit of Julia is there,” Fortunato said. “Julia herself had a joyous personality. I was a big fan of hers, from beginning to end.”
Part of what made Child so spirited was her sense of humor, which librettist Mark Shulgasser emphasized by sprinkling “bon mots” from her shows throughout the opera.
Host John Archer enjoyed that humor firsthand as Child’s student, when the chef was giving classes at Boston University that were open to the public.
“I think she will go down as one of America’s greatest wits,” Archer said. “She’s up there with Carol and Lucy, with that wry wit I find so funny.”
Archer remembers once asking Child for advice, when a dinner he was cooking hadn’t turned out so well.
“I’m a good cook. I cooked this huge pot of clam chowder,” he said. “When I came downstairs, my big pot had curdled, separated, boiled over. It doesn’t affect the taste, but it looks awful.”
Archer had a number of guests he didn’t want to disappoint, so he called Child in Cambridge, thinking she could provide a solution from her vast knowledge of the cooking process.
“She said, ‘I know exactly what to do,’” Archer said. “‘Turn the lights off.’”
He took her suggestion and served the chowder by candlelight, which disguised it well enough for people to enjoy their meals.
While he loves Child’s humor, Archer also appreciates the serious impact she had on American life and considers the culinary arts an important part of our cultural experience.
“She revolutionized cooking, which is a big part of everybody’s life,” he said. “To add these aesthetics into our lives, so that common housewives are making Crepes Suzette and using wine in cooking — it accelerated our taste buds to a new level, and no one else was doing it.”
In the same fashion, Music at Eden’s Edge believes it’s important to bring great music into the community, which they accomplish by offering free programs throughout the year.
These include a summer concert series for seniors and families, and youth chamber concerts that bring music into public schools around the North Shore.
“We want to be present in our community,” said Maria Benotti, director of the ensemble. “We do fundraisers so we can do these outreach programs free.”
Fortunato has appeared with Eden’s Edge before, at a concert in 2000, and Benotti appreciates the demands she must meet to perform “Bon Appetit.”
“I think for most of us, doing two things that are complex at once is challenging,” she said. “Singing and acting are difficult. Singers’ bodies are their instruments, and you also act with your body. So that has to be integrated.”
Eden’s Edge holds two benefit concerts per year, and Benotti appreciates the support the community has already shown.
“What’s really exciting to me is that people have been really generous to our silent auction,” she said. “In spring, we try to do something fun and original. In a way, it’s a preview of our season.”
If you go
What: "Bon Appetit," opera composed by Lee Hoiby, featuring D'Anna Fortunato, in a benefit for Music at Eden's Edge with silent auction and “All About Chocolate” Sweet Secrets and Samplings presentation by chef Bill Collins
When: Saturday, March 23, with silent auction at 7:15 p.m., performance at 8 p.m., followed by "Sweet Flirtations"
Where: Home of John Archer, 10 North St., Danvers
More information: Tickets $60 at the door or www.edensedge.org. Reservations recommended. Preview of silent auction at www.edensedge.org, or call 978-270-4463.