Master Class

Master Class

Master Class

By Terrence McNally
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Main Season · Roda Theatre
May 21–July 25, 2004

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

Berkeley Rep is extremely pleased that the inimitable Rita Moreno will seize the stage as Maria Callas, the opera diva for whom “art is domination.” A fictionalized account of Callas’ legendary master classes at Juilliard in the early ‘70s, acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!) exposes the vulnerability and doubt that are hidden under the remorseless ego and sparkling humor of this most gifted woman. With a dazzling combination of cattiness and canniness, Callas exposes her life, loves and artistry for the benefit of her students in her “Master Class.” Rita Moreno is an artist of immense talent, the only female entertainer to have won four major awards: the Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony. Under the direction of Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project), Master Class promises to be one of THE theatrical events of the year!

Creative team

Terrence McNally · Playwright
Moisés Kaufman · Director
Mark Wendland · Scenic Design
Lydia Tanji · Costume Design
David Lander · Lighting Design
Jon Gottlieb · Sound Design
Gary Sheldon · Music Director
Nicole Galland · Dramaturg
Lynne Soffer · Dialect Coach
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
Nicole Dickerson · Assistant Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Alan Filderman · Casting


Sherry Boone · Second Soprano: Sharon (May 21–July 15)
Teressa Byrne · Second Soprano: Sharon (July 16–25)
Donna Lynne Champlin · First Soprano: Sophie
Rita Moreno · Maria Callas
Owen Murphy · Stagehand
Cheree A. Sager · Young Maria
Scott Scully · Tenor: Tony
Michael Wiles · Accompanist: Manny

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

There are many reasons to produce a play, from relevance of material to style of production. Perhaps no reason, however, is more compelling than the ability to assemble a particular group of artists who bring a unique set of talents and ideas to a given project. Such is the case with Master Class.

It is not everyday that we can marry the talents of Rita Moreno and Moisés Kaufman. Ms. Moreno moved to Berkeley several years ago, news which I greeted with both excitement and trepidation. I have had a notoriously difficult time finding the energy to persuade famous artists to work for us, for a host of obvious and less obvious reasons. But upon meeting Rita, any residual caution on my part was thrown to the wind. She was, and is, different. Her easy sense of collegiality, her profound respect for the theatre and love of Berkeley, her generosity and boundless spirit, all made me feel that this was not simply a star with whom we would try to form a mutally exploitative relationship, but a person wanting to fully engage with us, someone who would challenge us and rise to the challenge herself, someone we could really travel with. I felt very eager to get her on our stage.

We flirted with a large number of ideas, finally hitting on Master Class. Terrence McNally’s imaginative portrait of Maria Callas, notorious for her life both on- and off-stage as the quintessential diva, offered an opportunity for Ms. Moreno, arguably the most celebrated cross-over performer of all time, to flex her theatrical muscles. Under the special directorial eye of Moisés Kaufman, whose work here on The Laramie Project was so phenomenal, and with a host of talented designers and actors, we feel not only justified in producing this show, but incredibly lucky.

We hope you have enjoyed this season as much as we have enjoyed producing it. Your continued support, through subscription, particularly, has meant everything to us. We are anticipating another exemplary season next year, and hope you will continue to join the party.

Tony Taccone

Maria Callas: 1923–1977

By Nicole Steen

It’s the perfect metamorphosis story: the awkward, grossly overweight, pimpled teenager transforms herself into the most beautiful, glamorous and celebrated opera star of all time. Maria Anna Sophia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou was born in New York City in 1923 to parents who had only recently emigrated from Greece (some say she was touched by the great spirit of Sandra Bernhardt who left this world just a few days before). Her mother, Evangelina, was greatly disappointed that she had given birth to another girl. The two would never have a good relationship.

Maria went unnoticed for the first ten years of her life, until one afternoon when Evangelina discovered a crowd of people gathering outside Maria’s window to listen to her sing. It was at this moment that Evangelina realized that her youngest daughter could become a star and accomplish everything that she herself felt that she had given up for a loveless marriage. Maria was carted around from talent show to talent show, each success confirming her mother’s sudden conviction that she was destined for greatness.

By 1937, Evangelina decided to leave Maria’s father and take the children back to Greece. The marriage had disintegrated, and she insisted that Maria leave America in order to receive a proper musical education. Upon their arrival, Evangelina lied about Maria’s age (she was only 13) in order to enroll her in Athens’ National Conservatory, where she would eventually meet her mentor, Spanish soprano Elvira de Hidalgo. De Hidalgo later recalled her first encounter with the young Maria Callas: “She was fat, pimpled and nervously biting her fingernails. The idea of her wanting to be an opera singer seemed ridiculous to me…but there was innate drama, musicianship and a certain individuality in her voice that moved me deeply.” In addition to inoculating her with the bel canto repertoire, De Hidalgo would work hard to improve Maria’s physical appearance, initiating what would be the proverbial transformation from ugly duckling to beautiful swan.

Maria’s life changed drastically when the Italians, under Mussolini, attacked Greece in 1940. The Nazi Occupation imposed curfews and other restrictions that made life grim. By Christmas of 1941, 300,000 Athenians had died of illness and starvation. Maria recalled subsisting on tomatoes and boiled cabbage, which she was only able to find “by walking miles and miles into the country to persuade people there to give [her] something to eat”—although she remained overweight for the duration of the war. She remembered performing in near darkness, the stage only lit by small acetylene lamps to prevent being spotted by enemy aircraft. The German and Italian soldiers were known to court favors from young Greek girls in return for small portions of pasta, rice, bread, chocolate and coffee, although the extent of Maria’s involvement in such exchanges is debatable. We do know that Maria eventually agreed to sing in German and Italian for small gatherings of men from the occupation armies, much to her teacher’s chagrin.

When the Allies liberated Greece at the end of the war, Maria was able to carry her blossoming career out of the country, eventually achieving international recognition for her voice. She had her Italian debut in 1947 in Ponchielli’s opera, La Gioconda, at the age of twenty-three. In Verona she met fifty-two-year old Battista Meneghini, a successful businessman who considered himself an opera aficionado. Meneghini was a tired-looking Italian who was quite taken with Maria’s voice, and he offered to support her musical career in exchange for control over her future earnings. He became both her manager and her husband.

With Meneghini’s support, Maria career was truly launched. She worked with Tullio Serafin, the great conductor who would become her lifelong mentor, and toured internationally. Later she worked with the great Italian director, Luchino Visconti, and after some struggle she earned for herself the title Queen of La Scala—La Scala being the great Italian opera house in Milan where so many divas had gone before her. She reinvented the great soprano roles and could transform herself at will into an array of characters ranging from feminine waifs like Amina in La Sonnambula to dramatically intense heroines like Tosca, Medea, Norma and Lady Macbeth. While other sopranos focused on ornamentation and vocal trilling, she became the first opera singer to stress the meaning of the words and to integrate them into the dramatic thrust of the story. Opera would never be the same.

Along the road to fame, Maria found herself entangled in one scandal after another. Audiences were fickle, and Italian opera goers were particularly volatile. The newspaper gossip columns instigated a furious rivalry with another great soprano, Renata Tebaldi, which would follow Maria throughout her career, with opera fanatics from all over the world taking sides. Maria acquired a reputation, perhaps undeserved, for being an insufferable diva and canceling performances at whim. When her voice gave out during a performance for the Italian president, she was subjected to furious ridicule and returned home to find the front door and windows of her home smeared with obscenities written in animal feces.

Although Maria had gone to great pains to protect her emotional identity by creating a public persona, the paparazzi were relentless about dragging her personal life into the public arena. One particularly interesting scandal concerned Maria’s sudden loss of weight—she dropped over sixty pounds in the space of a few weeks, transforming herself almost overnight from a whale into a fashion model. Newspapers reported that she had accomplished this by intentionally swallowing tapeworms. Whether true or false, the legend persists in Italy today.

But the greatest fodder of all for the public imagination was her torrid and tortured affair with the wealthy shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis. Maria was introduced to “Ari” at a party in Venice in 1957 by Elsa Maxwell, a notorious society gossip columnist in her seventies (who may have carried her own torch for the elegant soprano). Onassis shared Maria’s Greek ancestry and was a part of the illustrious jet set. He was famous for arranging social events with guest lists that included Winston Churchill and the royal Rainiers of Monaco. Onassis was also married, yet he managed to seduce Maria during a cruise on his yacht with both of their spouses present aboard the ship.

They became more than lovers—they were a force of nature. Onassis brought out something in Maria that she had never experienced before. He was able to connect with the passionate woman behind the public persona, the vulnerable woman who was hurt when her legs had once been compared to an elephant’s. Onassis had almost no interest in opera, and in fact, had said on more than one occasion that “shrill voices of its divas seriously hurt [his] ears.” What drew him to Maria seemed to be her celebrity status—he was a notorious collector of famous women. It was an “historic love”—and a head-on collision from which Maria would never fully recover.

Shortly after the cruise, and very much in the public eye, Maria left her husband and her affair with Onassis became public knowledge. They were “an item.” She began talking about giving up her singing career in order to have his children, as she told her housekeeper, Bruna, “For the first time I understand what it means to be a woman. My singing, my career—they must come after Ari.” Controversy continues to circulate over whether or not the two had a secret child. In 1960 an interview with Maria appeared in France-Soir with the headline: La Callas Told Me: “I No Longer Feel Like Singing…I Would Like to Have a Child.” Some say there was a baby boy, a stillborn, while others claim there was a secret abortion insisted upon by Onassis, which Maria would regret for the rest of her life.

After struggling to secure a divorce with Meneghini, Maria had every hope that a marriage to Onassis would soon follow and that she would finally have the opportunity to trade her public life for one of married bliss. Her fantasies were shattered quite suddenly on October 17, 1968, when after nearly a decade of keeping Maria as his lover, Onassis publicly announced his engagement to the recently widowed Jackie Kennedy.

Emotionally devastated, it seemed that Maria had lost her only chance at personal fulfillment. Yet she put on a brave show, hiding her private disappointment and showing the public only the great opera diva—always the performer, always Callas. The dichotomy between the two sides of her character was now magnified, and she often complained to those who knew her, saying, “Callas is killing me.”

By 1971, the time she was asked to teach the master classes at Juilliard on which Terrence McNally based his play, Maria was at a decidedly low point in her life. She was a broken woman. She had lost the love of her life and had once been hospitalized for taking too many sleeping pills, leading newspapers to conclude that she had attempted suicide. Her dearest friend and mentor, Tullio Serafin, had passed away unexpectedly, her eyesight was weakening (she had always been terribly nearsighted, but now she was diagnosed with glaucoma), and perhaps worst of all, her voice was beginning to fail her. In 1977, at the age of 53, she was found dead in her Paris apartment, where she had secluded herself for several years after learning of her beloved Ari’s death in 1975. The cause of her death is still disputed—was it suicide, a condition brought on by drug abuse, a homicide or a broken heart? As the tragedy draws to a close, it becomes clear that behind the great Maria Callas, there lies an even greater mystery.

Maria Callas

In her own words

There are two people in me: Maria and Callas. I like to think that they go together because in my work Maria is always present. Their difference is only that Callas is a celebrity.

After all, this is what counts most in life. Happiness and love, deeply felt love, are worth more than an awful career, which leaves nothing else except a name.

If you want to live in harmony with yourself, you have to work. Work very hard.

What a solitary life awaits me! I will never be able to sing as well as in the past, nor can I expect to meet a man up to my hopes and standards…Is it perhaps too much to ask a person to be honest, loyal, faithful, passionate? I am very discouraged: I trust myself but I can’t trust anyone from the past, present, or future.

In the words of others

“[She was] something beautiful. Intensity, expression, everything. She was a monstrous phenomenon. Almost a sickness—a kind of actress that had passed for all time.”—Luchino Visconti, Italian director

“Maria was [still] madly in love with Ari, sincerely in love with him. She had a mad passion for him. They were like two wild beasts together.”—Baroness Helene-Marie de Rothschild

“When I gazed into her extraordinary, bright, splendid, and hypnotic eyes, I understood that she is an exceptional person.”—Elsa Maxwell, gossip columnist and friend

“There was never any love between us, so why speak of being enemies when we were never friends.”—Renata Tebaldi, opera singer and greatest rival

The master classes

In the autumn of 1971, Maria Callas agreed to teach two 12-week sessions of master classes in the Juilliard School’s opera theatre. At first the response to these classes was modest, probably due to poor publicity, but as word circulated, the demand for tickets quickly increased. Her classes attracted great luminaries of the opera world, including Franco Zeffirelli, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Tito Gobbi, Lillian Gish, Gina Bachauer and Grace Bumbry. Over three-hundred young singers auditioned; twenty-six of these were accepted. Twice a week for 12 weeks, the students took turns performing from the classical repertoire and receiving instructive feedback from Maria, who often dissected the pieces bar by bar in order to explore the emotional and dramatic meaning in the music. She encouraged students not to imitate her but to discover their own styles, although she was adamant that the spirit and intention of each composer be honored.



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