On September 24, Juilliard happily hosted the return of an old friend—Fred Plotkin. If the name sounds familiar, you may have heard his commentary on the Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network or National Public Radio. Or you may have read one of his definitive works—Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera and Classical Music 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Classical Musicare now standard introductions to the art forms, renowned for their in-depth coverage and accessibility. You may also have seen him on the Food Network, read about him in The New York Times, consulted one of his travel guides, or cooked from one of his five cookbooks.
Plotkin is an “opera aficionado” (he has seen 44 separate productions of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle) and expert in all things Italy—travel, food, wine, music, and culture. Gregarious and encyclopedic in knowledge, Plotkin began the evening—a fund-raising event organized and hosted by the School’s Development Department—with a short talk about how his passions for both excellent food and excellent opera coincided. Both, he said, are ways of nurturing ourselves. Both—when expertly done, of course!—are about pleasure, imagination, and feasting the senses.
The evening began with a short video presentation of operas in which food figures in as almost a character of its own. Pasta serves as a diversion inThe Italian Girl in Algiers, while the tensions between the hedonist and his famished butler are made apparent during a dinner scene in Don Giovanni. Falstaff claims that, without his round belly, he wouldn’t be Falstaff and no one would love him! The starving Hansel and Gretel are swept up in a dream of pig-headed chefs and fish-headed butlers laying a banquet before them while the surrounding forest transforms into a magnificent dining hall.
“When I’m on a train in Italy,” Plotkin said at the end of the reel, “[other passengers] don’t talk about politics, or soccer; they talk about what they ate and what they’re going to eat. We sustain ourselves not only when we eat things, but when we imagine them.” Guests were then invited into the Glorya Kaufman Dance Studio, transformed into an elegant dining room, in order to enjoy the product of Plotkin’s own imagined menu—executed by friend and acclaimed chef Michael Romano—with each course accompanied by a performance featuring students from the Vocal Arts Department.
After Cecilia Hall and Adrian Rosas performed arias from Le Nozze di Figaro, the guests enjoyed butterfly pasta with sweet red pepper-roasted tomato sauce, peas and Parmigiano-Reggiano. As the plates were cleared, Hall performed “Seguidilla” from Carmen. The next course was a salad with Valencia oranges, olives, and sherry vinaigrette, served with a crisp Italian white wine. The vibrant mix of sweet, salty, and slightly sour, paired with the brilliant yellow of the wine, provided a light, colorful plate that matched perfectly with the upbeat, fiery Spanish temptress of Bizet’s masterpiece.
Following the salad was a duet from La Traviata, sung by Nicholas Coppolo and Jung Nan Yoon. Accompanying the performance was a roasted pheasant with sautéed crimini mushrooms and spinach. Plotkin had described Verdi as feeling unappreciated by the Italians, and so he traveled to Russia to work and conduct. However, “he despaired … over the Russian diet.” To sustain himself, Verdi headed north, loading a car with cheese, oils, ham, and pheasant from Italy, wines from France, and meats from Berlin. “That was how he sustained himself in Russia,” Plotkin said.
For the finale, Meredith Lustig, Ta’u Pupu’a, and Javier Ernesto Bernardo performed “The Strawberry Song Trio” from Porgy and Bess, while guests enjoyed strawberry ice cream with chocolate-dipped strawberries and pistachio biscotti, accompanied by a sparkling red wine.
During the event, President Joseph Polisi took a moment to praise the talented students, the Vocal Arts Department, and Plotkin and Romano. He also thanked the special events and annual giving team for its careful planning and execution of the dinner, and spoke of the exceedingly generous support of trustees Ellen and James Marcus, the evening’s underwriters. In addition, he acknowledged Castello Banfi, the Tuscan-based wine purveyors who had donated the five varieties of wine in collaboration with Plotkin’s gourmet palate.
“We can’t always promise you food and wine,” President Polisi said, “but we can always promise you a great performance.”
So grazie, Mr. Plotkin, for sharing your love of music, food, and wine; for the fruits of your imagination; and for sustaining your friendship with us here at Juilliard.