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The World According to Callas

Santa Barbara Theatre Brings Terrence McNally’s Master Class to
the Lobero

by Charles Donelan

Of course VH1, American Idol, and the whole popular culture
industry have about driven it into the ground, but there was once a
time when the word “diva” actually meant something. What it meant
was an impossibly egotistical and demanding opera singer, and
that’s just what Terrence McNally’s play Master Class promises to
deliver — the original diva, Maria Callas, in all her delirious,
late-career glory. In a master class, an opera singer or other
great performer takes students onstage before a live audience, one
at a time, and rips their hearts out — I mean, “critiques and
coaches their performances.” Callas was legendary for making her
master class students cry, and for making the kind of urgent,
impassioned personal digressions that scream “diva,” no matter the
language in which they’re delivered.

When Dallas Morning News music critic and world-renowned Callas
expert John Ardoin sat down to transcribe his notes from Callas’s
1971 season of master classes at Juilliard, he knew he was onto
something, but it wasn’t until almost 25 years later that Terrence
McNally recognized the inherent theatricality of the material and
transformed it into a Tony-winning show. The upcoming production at
the Lobero originated at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, with
Simon Levy directing and Karen Kondazian in the lead. When last
produced by this team in 2004, the show won an L.A. Ovation Award
for play of the year and ran for eight months.

The play takes a very simple, direct form and then runs with it.
Callas sees and critiques a sequence of three singers — a soprano,
a tenor, and another soprano. Each singer brings out a different
side of the legendary teacher, and each leaves with a very
different impression of Her Majesty, or “La Divina,” as Callas
preferred to be called. In the intervals when they are not singing,
and she is not berating them, Callas ruminates on her life and
loves, including the one for whom she would always carry a flame,
Aristotle Onassis.

When Levy and Kondazian were deep in rehearsals in 2003 for
their first attempt at the piece, they got a hot tip from a friend
in Santa Barbara. Marilyn Horne, vocal director of the Music
Academy of the West, would be holding a master class in the Lobero
Theatre. Would they like to come and observe? Of course. Although
Horne’s manner included none of the wretched imperiousness that so
confounded Callas’s poor sopranos, the experience nevertheless
stayed with both director and star, crystallizing for them the
drama and pageantry of holding a master class in such an exalted
setting. As Kondazian said of the Lobero, “I think Maria would be
thrilled with it.”

Kondazian brings a wealth of research, curiosity, and sympathy
to her portrayal of Callas. Where others, perhaps even including
the playwright McNally, see crankiness and egotism, Kondazian
perceives the effects of physical deterioration — glaucoma, sore
teeth, and, worst of all, the unending battle with the various
throat problems that cut Callas’s career short and necessitated the
outlet of teaching in the first place. Kondazian’s notices in Los
Angeles were unfailingly positive, with many critics citing the
well-roundedness of her portrayal and her ability to shift easily
through the various stages of Callas’s life.

Levy overflows with praise, not only for his leading lady, but
also for the material. “McNally is a genius with this story,” he
said. “It’s got everything, and Callas follows a path that reveals
her art as everything we want art to be. The things we love about
art — truth and passion among them — are what we see in this play,
and not just because they are discussed. The beauty of this show is
that in it the really great, lasting values of art are actualized;
they take place for us onstage. That’s what the music and the great
writing both bring to it — this sense of being in the presence of
the real thing: art itself.”

4•1•1 Master Class will be at the
Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) from Thursday, January 4
through Saturday, January 6 at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, January 7 at 2
p.m. Tickets are available at lobero.com or by calling 963‑0761.

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