Food & dining

Food operas elevate the art of eating

At the BSO food opera, Ben Houge uses video game techniques to pace the music to each course and to each diner. Right: Houge talks with diners. Top: A diner eats while descriptive words pop up on an iPad and music plays on resonators.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
At the BSO food opera, Ben Houge uses video game techniques to pace the music to each course and to each diner.

At the exact time bowls of wild mushroom bisque with shiitake mushroom timbale and crème fraiche were placed on the table, iPads in front of each dinner visually registered descriptive words — “creamy,” “rich,” “sustained” — and music poured from small octagonal oak and walnut resonators in front of diners. The 50 guests at this Boston Symphony Orchestra event Jan. 9 began to taste their soup, some a little tentatively, as they entered into composer Ben Houge’s vision of a food opera.

We’ve become comfortable with multimedia and performance art combining music, artworks, video, and more. But to Houge, associate professor in electronic production and design at Berklee College of Music, food is an art that deserves its own soundtrack. This performance, inspired by the overture of Etienne Mehul’s opera “Les Amazones,” engaged diners into thinking about music not as a backdrop but as a way to deepen the flavors of what they were eating.

“Taste happens in the brain, not the tongue,” Houge says, citing studies done at Oxford University and elsewhere. His goal, he says, is to create a sonic environment that prompts diners to realize how hearing and taste fit together, and to be more mindful when they are eating. The BSO diners compared taste notes as they ate, many nodding in recognition as the music wafted through the room. “I never thought of mushroom soup as a cello,” said Judith McMichaels, “but it works.”

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Houge, who has had a long career as a video game composer, began to work on the idea of food operas after being offended by music in restaurants. “Music is really an afterthought in many places,” the enthusiastic restaurant patron says. “Everything is really well-thought out” and then “the bartender picks the music.” Why not, he thought, use the technology available to make music integral to the dining experience. After a few academic events, Houge’s first restaurant food opera was in November 2012 at Bondir in Cambridge. Using video game techniques to pace the music to each course and to each diner, Houge launched what he calls a “new kind of aesthetic experience.”

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Since then Houge, 43, has staged food operas in London and Spain as well as in Boston. A first series at the BSO was in January 2017.

Technology is key to Houge’s vision. As diners in the Cabot-Cahners Room at Symphony Hall sipped wines matched to the courses, Houge used controls on his iPad to start the music on diners’ iPads for the main course. The sounds rippled through the room as the waiters moved from table to table to deliver beef short ribs with confit tomatoes, watercress, and apple-jalapeno puree. The diners contemplated the words “deep, rich, balance, strong,” on their iPad screens as they discussed how the beef with its counterpoint of sweetness and heat in the sauce and the bitter watercress matched the descriptions.

A diner eats while descriptive words pop up on an iPad and music plays on resonators.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
A diner eats while descriptive words pop up on an iPad and music plays on resonators.

Houge’s wife, Jutta Friedrichs, a product and furniture designer and mentor at Harvard Innovation Lab, collaborates with Houge on the food operas to design the resonators and other visual elements. This evening she checked details throughout the room as the couple’s infant daughter, Emilia, slept through music and conversation in a baby seat in a corner.

Using Mehul’s overture as inspiration, Houge, who studied to be a classical composer as an undergraduate, had created variations on various passages, somewhat as a jazz musician might. Since the music is transmitted through the iPads and several speakers around the room, diners are immersed in sound, with each, Houge says, having a slightly different experience. “Instead of listening in the audience to the orchestra,” he says, “it’s more the experience of being in the orchestra.”

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One advantage to the iPads is that Houge is able to transmit the music wirelessly; the earlier concerts in Bondir involved stringing wires to each diner’s seat and limited the number of participants. Houge’s food operas are underwritten by grants, with support from Berklee, and these, with support from the BSO. “The food operas are part of a larger effort to offer new experiences to our patrons to complement the concert on stage,” said Sarah Manoog, senior director of marketing and branding for the BSO. Last year’s concerts received positive feedback, and this year’s two events sold out within two weeks, she added.

Currently Houge is working on a food opera to be staged in Spain, in collaboration with chef Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz restaurant in San Sebastian. He and Aduriz, often considered to be the heir to the famed Ferran Adria, have been working for several years on food opera concepts, and Houge hopes the event will spark more interest in similar events in Spain and elsewhere.

For the BSO food opera, Houge worked with Gourmet Caterers executive chef David Verdo and lead chef Chris Shortall to coordinate his music with the four-course menu that started with a frisee and butter lettuce salad with a blue cheese brulee and ended with a chocolate glazed mousse bombe with a chocolate mint anglaise.

As the diners began the dessert course — the words “smooth,” “creamy,” “luscious,” “sweet,” “sensitive” popping up on their screens, and high notes gliding through the air like the silky mint chocolate anglaise — several commented that the musical immersion gave the evening a feeling of camaraderie.

Before heading off next door to the BSO concert, guests reflected on the evening. Next year, said Ted Ross: “We want to bring more people.”

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Tickets for the food opera were $127-$156 and included the meal and BSO performance.

Houge spoke with diners about the experience.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Houge spoke with diners about the experience.

Alison Arnett can be reached at arnett.alison@gmail.com.