Opera inspired cocktails

The vast, horizon-encompassing presence of Lake Superior gives rise to more than daring outdoor pursuits and nature inflected spirits.  The Lake also inspires incredible art and music made in Duluth.  And, while the town may be better known for Low the Band and Trampled By Turtles, it is also home to a remarkable professional opera company called Lyric Opera of the North (LOON).  I sat down with LOON’s General and Artistic Director Sarah Lawrence to chat a little about opera in Duluth, and to get some cocktail inspiration.

EV: You've said before about LOON, "We always use our outdoor voices," which I love.  What exactly does that statement mean to you, though?

SL: We DO use our outside voices! Opera is a sort of distillation of the human experience, sung out loud by voices trained to be heard in giant rooms, over an orchestra, usually without amplification. Even when we’re singing softly, we have to accomplish that in a way that is audible to everyone in the room.  It is, essentially, trained yelling.  Opera is remarkable in the way it can knock us sideways with bravura and volume, or it can slay us with tenderness. Opera takes any – all - of the most intensely personal experiences of a human life: new love, hope, joy, heartbreak, anger, envy, grief, loss – and sings those things out loud.

I asked Sarah which arias, or other bits of opera music, would make the best inspiration for cocktails.  She gave me a few of her favorites, and I ran with it.


Sull’aria (The Letter Duet)

Marriage of Figaro, by Mozart

Countess Rosina’s husband, Count Almaviva has become infatuated with the lovely young Susanna, a servant in their household.  (Meanwhile Susanna is engaged to be married to Figaro.)  In this duet the Countess and Susanna come up with a plot to catch the Count in his attempted infidelity.  But, I think we should ignore the precise subject of the duet and focus on its ethereal quality.  This is the piece of opera music in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, about which Morgan Freeman’s character says, “to this day I don’t know what those two Italian ladies were singing about…I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it…And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”  As incandescent and light as a summer breeze tickling you through an open window, this duet deserves a cocktail with those same qualities.

  • 3 cucumber slices
  • 6 mint leaves
  • 2 oz. Vikre Juniper Gin
  • ¾ oz. lime juice
  • ¾ oz. St. Germaine
  • ½ oz. simple syrup
  1. Gently muddle the cucumber and mint in a shaker.  Add the other ingredients and shake extremely well.  Strain into a lowball over ice.  Garnish with more mint and cucumber.
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Largo al Factotem

The Barber of Seville, by Rossini      

You would likely recognize this aria because it is the one featuring “Figaro,” sung over and over again.  And there have been plenty of spoofs on it, most famously one from Bugs Bunny.  This piece marks the grand entrance of Figaro, the Barber of Seville himself, onto the stage.  In those days a barber was useful for much more than simple haircutting, and Figaro sings of all his many talents, from shaving to lancing boils.  All the women want him, all the men want to be him.  Everyone wants Figaro (according to him at least)!  I imagine Figaro to be the type of person who would waltz into a bar and order the most complicated cocktail possible, namely a Ramos Gin Fizz.  In this version, however, the classic has been livened up with a little Seville orange, in the form of marmalade.   

  • 1 oz. egg white
  • 2 oz. Boreal Juniper Gin
  • 3 drops orange blossom water
  • ½ Tbs. marmalade
  • ½ oz. (1 Tbs.) simple syrup
  • ½ oz. (1 Tbs.) fresh lemon juice
  • ½ oz. (1 Tbs.) fresh lime juice
  • ½ oz. (1 Tbs.) heavy cream
  • 1 oz. soda water
  1. In a cocktail shaker, whisk the egg white a little bit with a fork.  Then, add the remaining ingredients except for the soda water.  Shake with no ice for about 25 seconds. 
  2. Open the shaker up, add a cup of ice cubes, close the shaker and shake with ice for at least another 30 seconds (traditional Ramos Gin Fizzes were supposedly shaken for anywhere from 8-12 minutes!). 
  3. Strain through the cocktail strainer and through a mesh strainer into an 8 oz. glass (with no ice in it).  Gently add the soda water down the side of the glass, and serve.
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Vissi D’Arte

Tosca, by Puccini

Opera is full of heart-wrenching arias, but Vissi D’Arte ranks among the very best of them.  This reflection on a life of art and religious devotion brings the whole opera to a standstill as the diva Tosca, who has been told she must give herself to the evil Baron Scorpia or else her love, the revolutionary Cavaradossi, will be executed, laments the impossibility of her situation.  “I have lived for art; I have lived for love…Why, why Lord.  Why do you reward me thus?” It is rich, nuanced, and bitterly gorgeous.  The Bijou, a stiff, complex cocktail named after jewels strikes me as the appropriate cocktail for Tosca.  This version uses Benedictine in place of Chartreuse and adds a cacao nib infusion for an extra bittersweet throatiness.     

  • 1 ½ oz. Vikre Cedar Gin
  • 1 oz. Cocoa nib infused sweet vermouth*
  • ½ oz. Benedictine
  • 1 dash orange bitters
  1. Stir all the ingredients with ice until well very well chilled (around 30 seconds).  Strain into a cocktail glass.    *To make cacao infused vermouth: combine 500 ml sweet vermouth and ¼ cup cacao nibs in a covered container.  Allow to infuse overnight then strain and store, in a sealed container, in the refrigerator.
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Hab Mir’s Gelobt

Der Rosenkavelier by Strauss

Possibly the most beautiful trio ever written.  In Sarah’s words: complicated, gorgeous, and DELICIOUS.  The trio is sung by the three central characters of the opera Der Rosenkavelier, her royal highness the Marschallin, the lovely Sophie, and Octavian – a young man, but the part is always played by a woman.  Octavian is in love with Sophie and has been working to save her from a ghastly marriage to a womanizing old man, who is royal but a boar.  Octavian’s plan succeeds largely because the Marschallin arrives on the scene and sets everything right.  This trio follows.  The Marschallin and Octavian have been lovers, and she sings of having always known he would fall in love with a younger woman but regrets it has happened so soon.  Meanwhile Octavian expresses his confusion between his feelings for the Marschallin and his love of Sophie.  And Sophie is generally bewildered by the whole situation and in awe of the Marschallin.  The piece develops to a sparkling rainbow of climax, the characters’ voices unite as they become of one mind, and the Marschallin releases Octavian and blesses his union with Sophie.  Inspired by the power of three women’s voices intertwining, this cocktail’s three main ingredients are each from a company that was founded by a woman: champagne from Veuve Cliquot, apricot liqueur from Marie Brizard, and gin from Vikre.  A small dash of rosewater is a nod to the silver rose that brings Octavian and Sophie to their first meeting.  (You can definitely use a different brand of champagne and/or apricot liqueur to make this cocktail, it’s just less symbolic.)

  • 1 oz. Vikre Spruce Gin
  • 1 oz. Marie Brizard apricot liqueur (or other good quality apricot liqueur, Rothman & Winter is excellent)
  • 3 drops rosewater
  • 3 oz. Veuve Cliquot, or other brut (dry) champagne
  1. Stir the gin, liqueur, and rosewater with ice to chill.  Strain into a flute glass or cocktail glass and top with champagne.
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Sous le Dôme Épais (The Flower Duet)

Lakmé by Léo Delibes

Another stunning duet for two sopranos, sung by Lakmé, the daughter of a Brahmin high priest, and her hand maiden.  The two young women go to pick flowers by the river and sing this duet.  During a moment alone, Lakmé is surprised by a British Officer.  A tragic (of course) love story ensues.  The flower duet is haunting in its sweetness and heady in its beauty, excellent qualities to inspire a cocktail.  In this cocktail, two strong spirits – cognac and aquavit – represent the two voices, the mix of vermouths is the supporting orchestra, and raspberry liqueur imparts a sweet floral quality.   

  • 1 oz. Vikre Øvrevann Aquavit
  • 1 oz. Cognac
  • ½ oz. Cocchi di Torino sweet vermouth
  • ½ oz. Dolin dry vermouth
  • ¾ oz. Chambord raspberry liqueur
  1. Stir all the ingredients with ice until well chilled.  Strain into a cocktail glass.