In 1971 and ‘72, the great opera diva Maria Callas gave a series of master classes at the Juilliard School in New York, just a few years before her early death and following a long decline in vocal capabilities that were, at one time, hailed as legendary in operatic circles.
Twenty-three years later, playwright Terrence McNally dramatized those lessons in an award-winning play, “Master Class,” which will open next week at the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon.
A recipient of both the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1996, the original “Master Class” was headed by Zoe Caldwell, with the diva later being played by such outsized performers as Patti LuPone, Dixie Carter and Faye Dunaway. Pretty big shoes to fill, but Theatricum Botanicum actress and Artistic Director Ellen Geer isn’t worried.
“My approach to this incredible role is the same that Callas used to approach her own life and work,” Geer said in a phone interview with The Malibu Times during a rehearsal break. “Absolute dedication at all levels.”
Indeed, Callas was famously single-minded in her pursuit of artistic perfection. In the play, Callas recounts how she would walk to and from the conservatory where she was studying during World War II, even though she had no proper shoes and her feet bled, saying, “Discipline and courage are the foundations of a proper operatic career.”
“Callas changed opera by bringing an emotional acting technique into it,” Geer said. “As an actress, that is how I have to approach the role. This play is really a love song to Callas and all people who dedicate themselves to making the world a different place through art.”
Callas was born in New York City to Greek parents and always claimed to suffer a lonely childhood, neglected by her mother in favor of her older, “prettier” sister. An unattractive child, she was pressured to sing at a young age, pushed to befriend occupying Italian and German soldiers for favorable treatment after the family returned to Athens and finally escaped to the Athens Conservatoire, where she studied with renowned voice teacher Elvira de Hidalgo.
She gave electrifying performances as a student while in Athens and quickly became an internationally known bel canto soprano, attacking difficult dramatic roles at a young age. At the height of her popularity, she underwent a profound weight loss, transforming from the ugly duckling of her childhood to a striking beauty, wowing audiences and drawing the attention of Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis, with whom she had an intensely passionate and abusive relationship for 10 years. A master of technical prowess, Callas drew on her own emotional life story to bring alive classical roles onstage.
“McNally really got to the core of this woman as an artist,” Geer said. “I like to think of Maria as the Michael Jackson of opera. She was so young when she started and this public persona was sort of thrust on her. It’s much like what happens to Hollywood stars today. They’re made into such powerhouses, but they live such isolated lives.”
Geer said that Callas was “the most difficult role” she’d ever done, noting, as Callas did, that “there’s no room for anything else.”
Such sentiments are welcomed by Heidi Helen Davis, director of “Master Class.” She said she had been thinking of the role for Geer since she saw Zoe Caldwell perform it in New York, years ago.
“Ellen is the artist’s artist,” Davis said. “We both felt that we were in sync with Callas’ approach to performing. This was our challenge, but also our chance to honor Callas and her work.”
Davis said they read biographies of Callas, watched videos and listened to recordings of the diva to prepare and were struck by painful childhood memories that seemed to shape Callas the artist.
“Callas tapped into that humiliation inflicted by her mother to bring great drama to her roles,” Davis said. “She was a passionate actress. In her classes, she would ask of her students all the things you would demand in acting classes. What is important? What are you feeling at this moment?
“She insisted it’s not about acting, it’s about being,” Davis continued. “And with this kind of technique, she brought opera back to its original intent-theatre meant to move and transport an audience.”
Davis also said that Callas was “unintentionally funny” and a fascinating character.
“This play is not only for opera buffs,” she said. “Anyone will find this interesting because Callas was bigger than life. I’ve become a fan because what Callas was after was such a striking thing for a performer-what makes a performance exciting? What makes life exciting?”
“Master Class” will run at the Theatricum Botanicum in repertory from July 11-Sept. 25. Schedules and ticketing information may be found at www.theatricum.com.