Singing is serious business
What could possibly be more dramatic than the brief life of la Divina, the great opera singer Maria Callas? Compressing it into two hours, adding extremely witty Terrence McNally dialogue and putting local legend Janis Stevens in the title role is just enough to be even more over-the-top than the tigress of La Scala.
McNally’s Master Class, in which Stevens has performed the lead before, is flawlessly produced at Capital Stage, under the direction of company producing director Jonathan Williams. The set design, by Stephen Jones, is draped like an opera house, right down to the luxury boxes on the wings, in a caravan of detail that belies the simplicity of the setting: a master class, in which the audience are students, as are the “victims” that Callas summons forth from the wings.
But there is no doubt who the star is here: Stevens’ Callas is flighty, but not lightweight; witty, but not given to cheap shots; surprisingly honest, but not terribly self-aware. The real trick here is to match a powerful actress—one with enough presence to evoke the diva—with an artist who has enough humility to surrender to the persona of Callas. There can be no doubt that Stevens is just the right choice; her performance of this role at the Sierra Repertory Theatre in Sonora last September received great notices.
Stevens is, by turns, flirtatious, charming, arrogant, demanding, vulnerable and, frankly, kinda bitchy; in short, she’s a diva. She’s defensive, catty, smart and she doesn’t like competition for center stage. It is only as the play unfolds and we see how well-performed music affects her (the students, played by Wendolyn Cooper, Laura Pyper and Ian Cullity, all have fine voices; the accompaniment by pianist Michael Wiles is also excellent). It is in these interludes—when the students’ singing is overshadowed by recordings of the real-life Callas—that we learn about her life in greater depth than the gossip-laden asides she generously dishes out; the music works, much like Proust’s madeleine, as a stimulus to involuntary memory, and Callas re-enacts more difficult and emotionally raw parts of her life for the audience.
We come to understand that Callas’ insistence that her students follow the music to their own interior is both an invitation and a warning; her biography is a lesson by example of how bittersweet the artist’s life will be for them, should they grab hold of it. Her own early retirement is addressed, although she denies that the loss of her vocal range was because of how recklessly she threw herself into roles, Stevens’ artistry is such that we can see the singer’s self-doubt. Did she ruin herself, in pursuit of the resounding “Brava!” she craved so?
Even la Divina is not sure, and therein lies the heartbreak. Very few have that sort of gift, and even fewer that amount of discipline, yet we all make choices that foreclose all the other possibilities in our lives—and then are forced to live with them. That, after all, is Callas’ story.