Jun 19, 2014

Spit, Shit, & Shine: Etoile de Gâtine


Sure, I've already written about some of the girls' amazing experiences in high fashion, oddball performance art, and in commercial work. But wait, there's more: Gigi has been cast in the King & I -- a major professional production (in English) currently playing at the Théâtre du Châtelet with a production budget, I have heard, in the 1-2 million euro range.

I can tell you that even though Gigi is getting paid (and fed, which she likes just as much as the money), the budget isn't going to the kid actors. Many of the big names have been brought in from overseas, and the sets and costumes are just sumptuous -- but classy. The director, Lee Blakeley, told me he kept a tight rein to keep it from being gaudy and overblown, and he succeeded, wonderfully. I feel like my old habits as a Variety magazine correspondent and reviewer are going to come in handy in the writing of this post.


The biggest name of the cast is Lambert Wilson, whom you might know as the Mérovingien in the Matrix trilogies and who plays a fine, charismatic, strong King of Siam. He's not Yul Brynner, of course, but nobody's Yul Brynner anymore, not even Yul Brynner.

The other big star is the American opera singer Susan Graham, who plays a really fabulous Miss Anna. Je Ni Kim, a young South Korean opera singer, plays a jaw-dropping Tuptim. I honestly don't think you could find a better Tuptim anywhere in the world. She's magnificent, and her voice cuts through the theater as clear as crystal. Someday I hope we get to go see her in a grand opera somewhere.

The theater itself is something of a big-name star in Paris, designed and built in the 1860s under the auspices of Baron Haussmann, the very same guy who was largely responsible for the razing and re-design of the city from medieval to modern.


It's a red-velvet, gilded architectural jewel that houses an audience of 2,500.


Does my daughter know how lucky she is to have this as her first theater experience?

I was just at my university reunion and went back to the stage where I often performed. The 1,100-seat McCarter Theater, considered one of the great live theater houses of not just the state of New Jersey but of the US in general, is nothing to sneeze at. Yet, let's admit it: It doesn't have anywhere near the old-world splendor of the Châtelet:


Gigi is nearly as excited for the costumes as for the show. Besides having her own personal microphone, she gets gorgeous Thai outfits to wear by costume designer Sue Blane, along with make-up, hair-do, and her first-ever contact lenses special for the occasion. She not only sings and dances in the kids' chorus, but she also has about half a dozen solo lines, and individual choreography. She gets to use her gymnastics, too, as the only kid in the show who joins the adults acrobats in a parade scene, doing cartwheels and walkovers across the stage.
left photo from Sue Blane © Théâtre du Châtelet; right photo by Gigi
photos of Gigi on her own camera taken by cast mates

For Gigi's first performance in the dress rehearsal, I bring my first best friend from the first day of first grade who's visiting Paris for the first time. I haven't seen her in probably 20 years, and it's a very special reunion for us. She's a mom, too, and remembers me when I was Gigi's age and doing my thing up on our school's little stages. So, yes -- you don't even need to bother asking, just bring on the tissues -- we both cry buckets whenever Gigi hits the stage, even when the scene is not supposed to be a tear-jerker.

I expect the dress rehearsal to be, well, a rehearsal, but it's a full house (complete with loads of media guests, reviewers, and cameras) and a fully realized production. It's sumptuous, grand, colorful, lively, well-acted, and wonderful and, judging from the roaring audience response, that's not just a proud mama talking. This photo is of the audience about 30 minutes before the show, by which time it fills up almost completely. If you see cameras set-up, that's because this is the night that the TV crews and journalists are invited to review the show and get their clips.

Before opening night, Gigi and the other kids are given gifts and cards by the stars, director, and production team, and of course told "Merde!" ("Shit!") and "Toï, toï, toï!" (more on this later) countless times. "Merde!" is the French equivalent of "Break a Leg!" and legend has it that the expression dates from the time when French audience members were brought to the theater in horse-drawn carriages. Thus, the bigger the audience, the more merde outside the theater. To wish a show's cast and crew "a lot of merde" made sense, therefore, and it has since been shortened merely to "Merde!"


Also commonly used here is "Toï, toï, toï" (pronounced "toy, toy, toy"), more specifically for operas and musical presentations. While nobody I know could tell me why they say this ("it's just what we do"), my (admittedly hasty) research shows that it's a German tradition. It may come from the first syllable of the German word "teufel" (pronounced "toy-full") which means "devil". I presume that this comes from the "Break a Leg" school of thought: If wishing somebody good luck brings on the evil eye, then superstition dictates you should do the opposite instead. Or another common explanation is that toï, toï, toï is the sound of somebody spitting -- and I swear I've seen old Jewish/Yiddish people do this as a way of warding off bad luck when somebody offers praise.

The producers give Gigi this pretty ceramic frog as a representation of toï, toï, toï. At first, we believe it to be a traditional French association, with the phrase, but we can't figure out why, and nobody can tell us. A frog doesn't say toï, toï, toï in French, nor is it an animal that spits in particular. It's beyond our comprehension. Then we find out it's an inside reference to the show, The King & I, itself, in which one of Anna's complaints is that people have to grovel on the ground in front of the king like toads. Merde!

THE CHEESE: Etoile de Gâtine

Etoile de Gâtine is an artisanal, raw goat's milk cheese that is almost too cute to eat. Almost. Both the name and the cheese come from the Gâtine area, in Deux-Sèvres. The cheese is aged anywhere from 4-10 weeks, and is considered best eaten between 6-10 weeks, with the crust graduating from chalky white to a greenish mold. The flavor also get stronger and goatier as time goes on.


Gâtine, in western France, is known for its apples and chestnuts, and while I can't say I taste either of these specifically in the cheese, it has a lovely, herby tang. For a soft cheese, it's quite firm, with that lovely dry-cream texture in the middle, and an oozier-softened-butter thing going on just under the crust.

By name, it seems like it would be related to Bonde de Gâtine (pictured below), but actually it is most closely related to a cheese called le Cendré de Niort, which shares the same milk and process up until the shaping and aging, resulting in cheese that look -- and taste -- different (the Cendré de Niort being white, round, often wrapped in a leaf, and a creamier cheese). Obviously, I will now have to go on a hunt for the Cendré de Niort, but that seems like it will be even more difficult and rare to find than the Etoile de Gâtine, which is already unusual enough.


What better cheese for a bunch of stars -- the children, the big names, and the theater building -- than one that's a star itself?


  1. What a truly special night that was! We just got home to the US last night, and when I asked my kids what their favorites of our trip were, they both said, "visiting Karen and her family in their apartment in Paris!"


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