A Diva Deconstructed 

Rita Moreno shines as opera star Maria Callas in Master Class.

"How can you have rivals," opera diva Maria Callas asks without guile, "when nobody can do what you can do?" It sounds like puffery, but in her case it was true: Luckily the Berkeley Rep could tap the much-honored Rita Moreno to play the diva in its current production of Terrence McNally's funny, heartfelt Master Class, a somewhat fanciful reconstruction of a class Callas taught at Juilliard in 1971.

The life of Maria Callas, for all of the biographies that have been written, is still studded with mysteries. One of the greatest opera singers of all time, she redefined the form. Conductors fell over themselves pulling out operas that had languished in obscurity because there was finally someone capable of singing them. She was a consummate artist who worked incredibly hard on every aspect of her craft, yet her artistry was often overshadowed by public distortion of her troubled personal life.

As her friend Stelios Galatapoulos notes in his book Sacred Monster, one of the more balanced portrayals, people were inclined to make a soap opera of Callas' life. Her troubled childhood with a domineering mother, her marriage to the much older Giovanni Battista Meneghini and his abuse of his position as her manager, her affair with Aristotle Onassis, the unproven rumors of a love child; all of these things fascinated the public. Equally titillating were the charges that Callas was unreasonable, temperamental, capricious; that she canceled performances at a whim and deliberately sowed rivalry with other singers. Much has been blown out of proportion.

Master Class integrates some of the details of Callas' life without getting too far into the soup of what did and did not really happen. As her students sing their arias -- all from operas in which Callas herself performed -- she flashes back to pivotal events in her history. Most dramatic are the moments when she recalls her affair with Onassis, which is appropriate considering that the truth behind what happened is one of the most hotly debated questions about Callas' life. Namely, did she conceive a child with Onassis that he forced her to abort?

One of the first biographies, Arianna Stassinopoulos's 1980 Maria, Beyond the Callas Legend, tells a tear-jerking story about how badly Callas wanted to have a baby, and how callous Onassis was about it when she miraculously conceived at the age of 43. The problem is, Callas had already been through menopause. When pressed, Stassinopoulos admitted that she had no documentary evidence of the pregnancy.

A year later, Callas' ex-husband Meneghini fought back with his My Wife, Maria Callas, pointing out that Stassinopoulos hadn't once contacted him, yet wrote as if she had. Twelve years of concerted effort and he hadn't been able to knock Callas up, he explained; visits to a doctor revealed that her uterus was malformed and indicated the beginning of her menopause. Then Galatapoulos and Anne Edwards jump into the fray; he says there was no pregnancy, she says there was and tells an elaborate story about how much blood Callas lost during the procedure and how Onassis didn't visit her in the hospital. It's almost as bad as the question of Callas' death. Was it suicide? Murder? An honest heart attack? A pulmonary infarction? As the lady was cremated without an autopsy, the truth may never be known.

McNally decided to go with the more dramatic story. After a very funny bit in which Callas mimics Onassis' crude speech, she shifts to a more pensive mode to describe her pregnancy. Moreno does this very well; it's very poignant, whether or not the story is true.

The other thing that seems most at odds with the existing research is the structure of the class itself. Right at the beginning Callas warns us that "I don't bite, I promise. I bark. I bark a lot." And then we hear her do it, cutting her students off before they've completed a note, commenting snidely on their clothing, and suggesting that they will never be more than adequate singers. Now according to Galatapoulos, who sat in on one of the master classes, Callas allowed each student to make it all the way through their aria before she commented, and "throughout the class," he tells us, "she approached her pupils as colleagues and friends, with warmth and even affection. Apparently McNally didn't think that was entertaining enough, but Moreno doesn't play McNally's idea of Callas as a monster so much as a rather eccentric woman who has been in the trenches herself.

And she was in the trenches, even if she never sang a minor role. Through most of the '50s and '60s, Callas was the hardest-working woman in show biz. Knowing what she was singing was so important to Callas that she eventually mastered six languages. She amazed her mentor and conductor Tullio Serafin by attending orchestral re-hearsals (unusual for a diva of the day). As a child she developed work habits that would enable her to perform prodigious feats. Meneghini tells a story of being awakened by a midnight call during a time that Callas was singing Brunnhilde in Die Walkure. Serafin was in a panic; the woman scheduled to sing the lead in I Puritani was down with flu. Would Callas consider the role of Elvira? This fell outside of Callas' impressive repertoire, and the first performance was about two weeks hence, but she managed to learn the part between her performances in Die Walkure, a superhuman accomplishment.

Something else McNally and Moreno capture is the person Galatapoulos feels Callas became after the divorce. Apparently she opened up as a person, becoming warmer and more sociable. He goes on to say that her sense of humor improved and that she became more willing to discuss her past and personal life. Both are strongly evident in McNally's play, especially when Callas says, "Sooner or later you get used to my sense of humor. Or you don't. Some people think I don't have one. Tenors."

In the play, Callas works with three very different students. While each actor makes singing opera look like fun, the most exciting interactions are between Moreno and Sherry Boone as Sharon, who has prepared an aria from Macbeth. Sharon turns out to be the closest to Callas' ideal as far as preparation and passion, but their first contact is, without spoiling the surprise, less than promising. Boone's Sharon not only has a fluid, muscular voice, but she's got the sinews to back it up. Hearing her roll the first "r" in the word "murder" is like listening to a gemstone being ground to perfection in a rock tumbler. Meanwhile Michael Wiles as Manny the accompanist is adorable, shooting admiring looks at Callas when she's not watching.

For all of the drama, mystery, and sadness around Callas' life, McNally's homage is relaxed, humorous, and open. While there are a few opera in-jokes, they're not off-putting to the rookie. And Moreno captures Callas effortlessly, down to the precise hand gestures that recall photos of Callas in performance and the beautifully modulated voice. Clever staging and the judicious use of recordings further the illusion. La Scala and the Met had La Divina; the Berkeley Rep has La Rita in a nearly seamless piece that captures the spirit, if not always the details, of a fascinating woman's life.

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