A Sneak at the Opera

A Sneak at the Opera
Fernando de Sousa, Wikimedia Commons
Dara Strickland is a leading expert on sneaking food and drink into the movies. She reports on her exploits for Gut Check (from an undisclosed location) every Monday. This week, she snuck into Gut Check International Headquarters on a Wednesday with this missive...

Show: La Cenerentola, the Metropolitan Opera's last show of the season, simulcast in HD from New York to the St. Louis Art Museum.

: A brunch/Italian feast for two plundered from the Straub's deli case; quiche, arancini, cannoli, fresh cherries, and a 4-pack of individually-sized bottles of pinot grigio.

Difficulty: Surprisingly simple.

I have to get something out of the way before I can talk about either the joys of watching the opera like it's a movie or the excellent sneakovation that is packaging drinkable wine in single-servings. I have never, in my twenty years of successful sneaking, gone to any food-negative event and seen more people with food than I did at the opera. I'm a cynical woman -- many would even say a hard woman, with some edges that don't respond to any amount of the natural erosions of the whipping grit of life's surprises.

I was floored.

This was a theater packed full of people almost exclusively over 60, largely ladies, and they were walking in with purses and soft-sided coolers with little concern for subtlety. It was like I pulled a Rip van Winkle in the hallway outside the auditorium and woke up in a distant future where my agitations about the joy of bringing your own food along to entertainment events has been embraced by the culture at large. It was glorious, magical; fittingly like a fairy tale.

click to enlarge Lincoln Center, home of the Met - Nils Olander, Wikimedia Commons
Nils Olander, Wikimedia Commons
Lincoln Center, home of the Met
La Cenerentola is a light comic opera in Italian with a story nauseatingly familiar to anyone with a child who has drunk the Disney Princess Kool-Aid. But this Cinderella doesn't meekly submit to her filial slavery, have talking animal buddies, or even get a fairy godmother. There aren't even any glass slippers (though in a delightful piece of set dressing, the household's many outrageously-colored pumps are lined up along the edge of the stage and have to be quickly removed for the prince's arrival) but the bones of the story remain with some interpersonal tweaks. An asinine, overly-important step-father and his two vain and selfish daughters treat the protagonist like the hired help in the mansion they inherited from her dead mother. Good thing La Cenerentola's around, too, because they can't exactly afford to pay someone else for her services: Dad's spent all of his inherited wealth on outfitting his daughters in 1920s-style finery and some really outrageous hats.

One day, a blind beggar comes to the door asking for food. The step-sisters try to throw him out but kind-hearted looker Cenerentola asks him in for a cup of coffee and fills his pockets with food. Luckily for her, he's neither blind nor a beggar but actually the prince's tutor in disguise, sent to the house to see if any of the ladies are worthy. On his report, the prince decides to drop in and visit to see for himself, also in disguise. For most of the opera, he switches places with his own valet to observe the behavior of the sisters when they think no one important is looking.

Wait a minute. Double-crossing, clever disguises, sneaky plots? That's ten degrees better than charming -- my kind of prince!

With the help of the prince's tutor, Cenerentola makes it to the ball in a fabulous gown and a pair of matching bracelets, one of which she leaves with the "valet" for whom she's fallen after rejecting the "prince's" proposal, telling him to find her if he really loves her. It's altogether a much better story for cutting out all the bippty-boppity-boo, like a Jefferson Bible with a Milanese accent.

Speaking of dispelling magic, I love seeing the opera live but it's got nothing on the HD simulcast. Unlike watching the opera on PBS, which is two, maybe three grainy cameras in a theater clearly not lit for recording, the Met's wildly successful HD broadcast gives an astonishing number of clear, gorgeous shots of the stage and performers. It also includes integrated subtitles. Now, my Italian's a little better than my German (thanks to some mandatory Latin classes in reform school), which is to say that I can usually tell you what everything on an Italian restaurant's menu contains and perhaps what the pasta name means.

However, as the RFT hasn't approved the requested funds for that Amalfi Coast language immersion school I want to attend, I definitely need the text of the libretto at the opera. Having unobtrusive sub titles across the bottom of the screen heightened the whole experience. It was easy for everyone to laugh at the many funny sections -- turns out a whole musical number about how epically wasted a guy is translates well across the almost 200 years since La Cenerentola debuted in Rome.

Now about all that food. The main problem I have with the Met broadcast is that it's a simulcast, so the matinee in New York starts at 11 AM here in Missouri, which doesn't sound so bad until you add in extra time to get a decent seat in the theater (several Met simulcasts have sold out weeks in advance this year and there's only general seating) and put together a meal for sneaking. I had a hot date to the opera with my hetero lifemate, Madame H, so hastily purchased Jimmy John's was just not going to cut it, but time was running low because of my profligate activities on Friday night. In my hour of need, I turned to the deli counter at Straub's.

If you've never been there, everything you've heard is true. While I personally have never passed off food from Straub's as my own for company, I would have no problem doing so. They have a great variety and quality, and I've always gotten service there that's helpful, not hovering. They understand that it all looks delicious and that you just need to be left be for a while to make up your mind.

Things Straub's provided me in my desperation:

Two reasonable slices of tomato, spinach and feta quiche: These were delicious eaten cold in the theater, the crusts flaky but not greasy, the saltiness of the feta nicely offsetting the richness of the egg and the earthiness of the spinach. Madame H thinks eggs are gross, but can be coaxed into eating the occasional quiche. She was a fan of this one.

Four-cheese and mushroom arancini: These rice balls were about half the size of the delicious fist-size gut busters you can still find in some places on the Hill. The rice had been cooked in a rich vegetable stock and blended with Parmesan and peccorino-romano, allowed to cool, then wrapped around a marble-sized chunk of a cheese that melted like butter against the lips, then lightly dusted in bread crumbs and baked. Rather than being spherical, these were flattened slightly into a shape more like thick patties, which I appreciated from a sneaking perspective. Food that rolls around adds an element of uncertainty.

Two cannoli: Not as good as Missouri Bakery, but...come on. When I finally shuffle off this mortal coil, I'd like Missouri Bakery to make a giant cannoli shell for a casket and just squirt my body in with the ricotta. The biggest sin with cannoli is making them too heavy, the second tarting it up with too many additional flavors to let the simple interaction of the main ingredients shine. Straub's cannoli committed neither atrocity, and were a great way to wrap up our furtive brunch.

When you go to Straub's, don't skip straight to the deli counter. Stop to pick up some fruit and definitely cruise the refrigerated wine case; I can't think of a better way to outfit yourself with classy, heat-beating booze for Shakespeare in the Park. I chose a four-pack of personal-sized bottles of Cavit pinot grigio, which were better than I had any reasonable expectation for wine that comes in a cardboard divider box to be. It was light, fruity but not too sweet, and the perfect accompaniment to our Italian brunch. I will definitely be sneaking more of these small bottles in the future.

The Met's season is over for the year, but will start back up in the fall. If you like classical music or are interested in the theater, go see one of these simulcasts. If you've never seen an opera before, like Madame H, go see one of these simulcasts. It's the best of the movies (comfortable seats, wearing whatever you want, sneaking in enough food to feed the Swiss Guard) without the worst of the movies (Eddie Murphy, sticky floors, cell phone conversations, toddlers running amok). There were even previews of the shows for next season during the intermission.

I plan to attend several next year, but I'm not sure anything can top the single most magical moment of my sneaking career to date: The audience hums with anticipation as the house lights go down and the overture comes up, then the rustle of dozens and dozens of snuck sandwiches rises in unabashed crescendo.
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