It’s a well-known fact that aspiring stars try to make ends meet by working as waiters. But at London, England’s Bel Canto Restaurant, the wait staff serves customers their meal in between performing arias from popular opera scores. One minute the waitress is serving warm crab gâteau with baby leeks and balsamic glaze, the next, she’s strutting around the tables in an 18th-century costume, while belting out “La Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen or joining with colleagues to re-create the festive drinking-song from La Traviata against a dramatic crimson backdrop.
The idea behind the aptly named Bel Canto is to blend opera with fine-dining. Each member of the resto’s wait staff is an aspiring singer and registered student at one of three prestigious training schools in London: the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy or the Guildhall School of Music. The roster of students hail from 20 different nations, including Spain, France, New Zealand, Belgium, Brazil, Ireland, Portugal, Japan and of course the restaurant’s home turf, England.
Jean-Paul Maurel, Bel Canto’s founder and co-owner, opened his London operation in 2008 after establishing two similar ventures in France 11 years earlier — one in central Paris the other in the Neuilly-sur-Seine area. An avid opera lover, he oversees 60 singers and 10 pianists and employs a different team of voices each evening to recreate the operatic cast; it all makes for a frenzied night of hospitality. “It is a quite complicated routine having to frequently liaise with our kitchen, because an aria by composers such as Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Rossini and Bellini are sung every 15 minutes during dinner,” he says. “We do not serve any food just before the singing nor during it, so we have to keep asking our chef: ‘Are we OK to sing now?’”
Such a nightly routine presents a challenge for the kitchen staff, but chef Giles Martin is imperturbable. “In an operation such as this, requiring precision timing for food delivery, we have to be unflappable,” he says “We strive to provide our clientele with a truly unforgettable evening, so, for us, working at Bel Canto is not just helping run a business, it’s a passion.”
It’s clear the culinary experience isn’t compromised at the restaurant that regularly fills 80 per cent of its 100-plus seats. Martin prepares traditional French dishes such as Coq au Vin, braised ox cheek, sea trout steamed with aromatic lemongrass and tomato terrine with a mascarpone and basil quenelle. And, the fixed-price menu, which changes seasonally, gives diners a choice between two courses ($66), three courses ($77) and four courses ($92), served from Tuesday to Saturday between 7 and 11 p.m.
In the dining room, at least four singers are on duty during each service and the effect is dramatic. “We find the customers are both enchanted and sometimes overwhelmed,” says Antonina Maurel, Bel Canto’s artistic director. “People are not used to having opera singers at such close quarters.” Antonina auditions a long list of applicants, ranging between the ages of 20 and 27; most have previous experience in foodservice.
And, the singers are just as enthusiastic as their audiences and are delighted with the gig. “You get the chance to perform in front of a live audience,” says Victoria Gray, a 22-year-old mezzo-soprano who attends the Guildhall School. “It’s a wonderful experience.” Waiter Koji Terada, a Royal Academy student, has grand dreams. “Neither of my parents are musical, but I hope one day they will see me perform at the Royal Opera House here in London or at the Metropolitan in New York.”
And, Bel Canto’s patrons help transform those dreams into reality. “These students have such dedication, such talent and they make so many sacrifices,” says Maurel. “They can’t drink, can’t smoke and are always studying, practising, rehearsing. To provide them with support is a privilege.”
But, that doesn’t mean Maurel is content to stand still. “I am thinking of developing a franchise operation,” he confesses, offering scant details. That aria is being perfected for another day.