Riverside Theatres present Blush Opera’s
by Julie Koh and Paul Smith
As we entered the Lennox Theatre in Parramatta on opening night we were suddenly transformed into the live studio audience of the latest episode of fictional reality television series Chop Chef. A stagehand puts the finishing touches to the TV set during the overture and I am completely drawn in to the drama from the start.
Billed as a dark, satirical comedy where six contestants from around Australia enter the cooking battle field on reality TV, Chop Chef is the latest creation from Blush Opera, a trio made up of of Co-Artistic Directors Jermaine Chau and Paul Smith, and Music Director Luke Spicer. Its aim, to explore the characters, tropes, and narrative devices of reality television and export them to the operatic stage where they can be pushed to their absurd conclusions, has been admirably (and hilariously) achieved with Chop Chef.
Julie Koh (librettist) and Paul Smith (composer) have created a smart, witty plot that unfolds as each character is faced with unusual and extreme cooking challenges and, reflecting how reality TV profiles contestants of interest and their backstories, each of the them has at least one major aria to sing. The stark white kitchen arena is watched over by three omnipresent judges, all masterfully played by David Hidden who, with the use of some tricky technology and Susie Henderson’s video design, is beamed onto our live studio screen.
As the characters compete to remain alive in the game and avoid facing the chop – literally, a little flavour (pun intended) of their various personalities is revealed. We first meet Kitty (Jermaine Chau), the insta starlet who dedicates her expected imminent win to her ladradoodle, who is watching from home.
Tom the tattooed lumbersexual and ‘Meat Connoisseur’ from Finland, (Benjamin Caulkwell).
Floral-skirted Renee, 49 year old ‘Soufflé Queen’ from Bris Vegas (Lisa Cooper) who has a dark secret plan (but… you’ll get no spoilers here!)
Victoria, 35, (Ayako Ohtake) the reigning champ, an uptight perfectionist and devotee of ‘lean in’ feminism who quips, “My husband Richard, the famous philanthropist investment banker, calls me his tallest poppy.”
Kale, 23, (Nick Geddes) ‘Global Local’, dedicating his life to mastering the ultimate green smoothie who, packed his minimalist carry on, activated charcoal toothpaste and my blockchain wallet and is about to embark on his “gnarliest adventure yet.”
Andy 21 (Gavin Brown) the caucasian ‘Sashimi Samurai’, who sword dances his way onto set, explaining his food dream is to ‘bring Asian fusion to the East’.
All six contestants were played with fine satirical precision and a great sense of drama, the singers’ clear diction enabling the audience to take eyes off the surtitles and enjoy the theatre unfolding on stage. This was important, who would want to miss such memorable lines as Tom’s, “I’m plating up this daddy. I garnish him with a sexy foam of foraged nuts,” and the “Turducken Aria”, Tom’s metaphor for being ‘stuffed’ (you really had to be there!)
Keerthi Subramanyam’s cleverly designed minimalist set created the impression of a kitchen (without the mess) and the cast’s simple but extremely effective gestures of cooking added a strong sense of action to the small stage.
Co-Director Kenneth Moraleda (alongside Nicole Pingon) says that Chop Chef,
“…is a perfect jumping-off point to explore the complexity and nuance of cultural identity. The work is studded with popular culture references making the conversations on race, capitalism and monoculture much more immediate and relevant. While the constructs of representation that the opera world presents are often wrong, what it brings brilliantly is high drama.”
High drama was also apparent in the dynamic score played skilfully by just four instruments. Melissa Coleman (flute), Alisha Coward (clarinet), Liam Meany (cello) and Claire Race (piano), conducted by Luke Spicer, demonstrated a passion and theatricality that was well matched to the upstage dramatics.
Composer Paul Smith describes Chop Chef as a ‘bright, high energy comedic opera, the kind of opera where you can expect to have a laugh, have a good time and really be engrossed in the story… there’s no boring bits…’. I must say I heartily agree.
This was 90 minutes of pure intelligent comedic entertainment. 5 stars!
If you want to read more about the creative forces behind Chop Chef take a read of this great interview with Liminal Magazine