Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ellen Geer Triumphs as Maria Callas

Master Class Theatricum Botanicum
Ellen Geer and Meaghan Boeing

In 1971, legendary operatic soprano Maria Callas returned to the stage to conduct a series of master classes at Juilliard. Over a period of twelve weeks, she undertook the painstaking task of deconstructing arias from the standard classic repertoire by composers such as Mozart, Puccini, Verdi and Rossini with twenty-five select students. These sessions became the basis of Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play, Master Class.

Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum’s Master Class, which runs through September 25th, stars Ellen Geer as Callas, “La Divina,” as she was lovingly known to her fans. Geer is captivating in the choice role, full of humor and pathos, passion and depth.

With the stage manager’s check of the stage complete and the accompanist in place, the statuesque beauty walks briskly onto the stage, (a master of the entrance) declaring that there should be no applause. “We’re here to work. Singing is serious business.” Of course she appreciates the applause but enough is enough. And by the way, she doesn’t believe in microphones because singing is all about projection, and she isn’t going to talk any louder than this, so if you can’t hear it’s your own fault. Listening requires concentration. You can either come down closer, or leave.

And then she smiles, wondering if she has scared us. She says she doesn’t bite…but she does bark…and quite a bit actually.

In these first few moments we see that Callas was no ordinary woman. Indeed, Geer begins a fascinating portrayal of the temperamental artist who was a perfectionist in her work, a prima donna who sacrificed the whole of her heart in pursuit of artistic truth.

Three students are represented, beginning with unfortunate soprano Sophie (Elizabeth Tobias), who can barely get a note of Bellini’s La Sonnambula out before being stopped several times by Geer. There is a great deal of humor in the lessons, evidenced by Callas asking Sophie to cover her ears while she tells the audience that the poor girl doesn’t have a “look.” It isn’t her fault because she can’t do anything about her face or figure, but she also doesn’t have any flair or style. (We know she really means the poor girl is ugly, which will of course prevent her from becoming a great artist by Callas’ standards.)

The second student, Sharon (Meaghan Boeing) is so intimidated by Callas’ comments that she cannot continue her lesson, making way for the tenor, Tony (Andreas Beckett). Callas tries to send him away but he refuses and, when he finally sings his aria from Tosca, she is so deeply moved by it that she is unable to give him any feedback other than to say it was beautiful.

Sharon then returns for a second round with Callas, determined to sing Lady Macbeth. Here comes the lesson about “the entrance” and after another gut-wrenching scene, it ends with Callas telling Sharon that she would be better suited to other material. As Sharon runs from the stage, she declares that Callas no longer has a voice and is jealous of anyone younger and talented, which does not appear to disturb her in the least.

Master Class Ellen Geer
Ellen Geer as Maria Callas

The majority of the text in Master Class is delivered by Geer, whose wicked stream of consciousness flows uncensored throughout the play. Geer is especially brilliant in two flashback scenes, one in each act, that reveal much about the woman’s tragic emotional life, her dysfunctional marriage to Battista Meneghini, and her disastrous relationship with the wealthy shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis.

It is also heartbreaking to hear her sing as the older Callas, who is now unable to control her once glorious voice. Tenderly played to perfection, this moment will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.

Master Class feels oddly at home here, amid the beauty of nature on Theatricum Botanicum’s outdoor stage. Heidi Helen Davis directs the production, marking a 21-year collaboration with Geer that includes last season’s original adaptation of The Cherry Orchard and the previous summer’s Long Day's Journey Into Night. The cast also includes Cody T. Gillette as Manny the accompanist, Bill Durham as the Stage Manager, and Alice Sherman and Rachae Amber Thomas alternating as the Page Turner.

Nearly 40 years later, Maria Callas’ celebrated master classes remain an important part of her legacy. An artist of the first order, she paved the way for many singers that would follow by re-establishing the importance of bel canto. With her fierce dedication to her art and uncompromising beliefs about the music, perhaps she said it best.

“A career in the theatre demands total concentration. One hundred percent detail. There are no shortcuts in art, no easy ways. This isn’t life, where there are so many. There is no being at center stage as if by magic. There is always the entrance first, just as there is always an exit after.”

Master Class will run through September 25 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga (midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway). For tickets and information, call 310-455-3723 or visit www.theatricum.com/.

The outdoor amphitheater at The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum is terraced into the hillside of the rustic canyon. Audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating. Snacks are available at the Hamlet Hut, and picnickers are welcome before and after the performance.

Photos by Miriam Geer
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