MARIA CALLAS' LIFE is the stuff of which Greek myths and Italian operas are made: the defiant heroine challenging destiny; a once-triumphant diva stricken by illness and devastated by love. Opera's most famous and infamous soprano is as tragic a figure you'll find among the 41 operas she performed between 1939 and 1965. Yet it's fitting that her story, or at least a portion of it, instead hits the stage as musical theatre. Recordings of her prodigious voice attest to Callas' greatness as an opera singer; but it was her acting that garnered the unprecedented fandom and staunch criticism that marked her career. As an opera singer, for a time she rivaled contemporaries like Renata Tebaldi and Joan Sutherland; but as an actress of opera, she remained peerless in her day.
An American-born Greek who made her professional debut at age 17 in Athens, she brought a level of drama to the opera never before considered nor, some would argue, wanted. In 1941, with World War II exploding around her, Callas prepared her own battle against the status quo, biding her time as Tosca at the Royal Opera of Athens. "They are the enemy," McNally's character says of the audience in her opening monologue. "We must dominate them!"
Groomed in Athens and Verona in the ensuing war years by mentor Tullio Serafin, she burst onto the scene at Milan's vaunted La Scala in 1950, with a celebrated leading performance in Verdi's Aïda. A mere decade later, she'd vanquished audiences (and artistic directors) in famous houses from Milan to the Met in New York City, with 600 performances in between in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Paris, London, Chicago and other cities. Callas' emotive role-playing popularized opera in a way no previous artist had, and her legend endures even 40 years after her fall from grace.
Before Callas, opera remained a formal, even wooden, affair. The athletic demands on the voice, and the conventions of the day, begat corpulent singers for whom stage presence constituted little more than being present on stage, reciting. Technique was everything. Callas, by contrast, acted every role. And she was beautiful. (By 1958, she had achieved the svelte, Hepburn-like beauty now immortalized.) She delved into the emotional lives of her characters, studied their histories and imagined them until in some way that life became her own. Even when she drew the ire of critics, her expressiveness -- both vocal and physical -- were incomparable. "It's all in the music!" she bellows at her students. So seriously did she consider the scores of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, at times she resembled a supplicant reaching toward the divine.
"Singing for me is not an act of pride," the program notes quote her, "but an effort to elevate towards the heavens where everything is harmony."
Uncompromising devotion to her art did not come without a price, however. Less than 10 years after winning Milan, failing health, burned bridges with the directors at both La Scala and the Met, and escape into an illicit affair with Aristotle Onassis (Italian law barred a divorce from her elderly husband) effectively ended her singing career. But this is just where Master Class, Terrence McNally's 1996 Tony Award winning play, begins.
THE HOUSE LIGHTS are on, and a stage adorned only with acoustic paneling, a grand piano, lectern and chair make for an improvised classroom at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. The year is 1971, and Maria Callas is all business as she strides onto the stage, immaculately dressed in black, to dismiss us with a wave of her hand. "No applause!" she says in clipped English heavily accented with both Greek and Italian. "We are here to work."
Work us she does, for two hours (including intermission), as a 48-year-old Callas -- admirably recreated by actress Gordana Rashovich -- orients us to her philosophy and temperament with a lecture about the sacredness of theatre and the imperative cultivation of detail. As she rails against the "intolerable conditions" onstage, flinging her demands at anyone within earshot, she makes herself clear in one sentence: "If you can't hear me, you're not concentrating!"
With that, we are spared further scrutiny as the lights dim, and the first of three students makes her way into the line of fire. The unfortunate is Sophie, an eager soprano from the Midwest whose very being seems to fall on Callas like an injustice. The diva can't stand to be eclipsed, not even to be a teacher, so she warms up on Sophie with a series of comedic, confidence-shattering interruptions followed by a series of short discourses on the war and other personal discomforts.
But as she sinks further into her narration of La Sonnambula, in which the sleepwalking Amina dreams of seeing her lover one more time on his way to the altar to marry another, we see clearly her discourse on heartbreak is not about Bellini, but Onassis. Their nine-year affair ended suddenly, publicly, and humiliatingly in 1968 when he married Jacqueline Kennedy, and just three years later it is still an open wound.
The classroom falls away into darkness, and Callas becomes Onassis, delivering an unflinchingly crude monologue on the subject of their relationship. From that dark portrait, she slips seamlessly back into reverie about her first role as Amina -- 1955, the height of her career. The cold circle of light becomes the warm stage of the grand La Scala, where Callas ends the first act in the refuge of its red velvet curtains and Corinthian columns, narrating her performance while a recorded aria by the real Maria Callas lends an ethereal edge to the proceedings.
Flashback is the device McNally uses to wed fact to fiction. As she narrates the stories of the characters she made famous -- Amina, Tosca, Medea, Lady Macbeth -- McNally weaves in the real-life events of Callas' own fated existence, revealing astonishingly parallel lines of love, heartbreak, jealousy, bitterness and resolve. And she may yet win a few converts to opera as she entreats us, her presumed master students, to listen to the music. She chastises us for not hearing what she does, then translates each story in rich detail.
"This is not just an opera," she spits at a student, "this is your life." From this vantage, we see beyond the formidable taskmistress, past the public persona of "La Divina," into the Callas essayist Matthew Gurewitsch captured when he wrote, "Though tragedy was her medium, her grasp of comedy was no less humane and complete."
There is relatively little actual singing in Master Class, which will relieve some and disappoint others. What live music there is, the "students" -- Broadway veterans Theodora Middleton and Matthew Walley (both from Master Class, opposite Patti LuPone), and Luann Aronson (Christine in Phantom of the Opera) -- handle with ease. Dan Manjovi, as the piano player Manny, rounds out the Denver Center Theatre Company cast travelling to the ATC stage under the direction of DCTC Associate Artistic Director Bruce Sevy.
Callas was, by all accounts, a character. And if McNally takes liberty with fact to restore a legend to an audience too young to remember the newspaper headlines, he does so in good faith. Had she been there to critique, Callas would likely have said something like, "Stop! Stop! Stop! You've got it all wrong! You've completely forgotten Norma, and Anna Bolena--But that's another story."
We'll never know. Having lost both loves of her life -- her voice and Onassis -- Callas died of a heart attack, alone in her Paris apartment, on September 16, 1977. She was only 53.
Master Class, a joint Arizona Theatre and Denver Center Theatre Company production, continues with matinee and evening performances Wednesday through Sunday, though November 6, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets range from $20 to $32, with half-price adult rush tickets available one hour before curtain for all performances (subject to availability). For reservations and information, call 622-2823.