Lyric Opera Virginia, Lisa Vroman open ‘Master Class’ in Tidewater, Richmond this weekend

Lisa Vroman as Maria Callas. (Courtesy Hylton Center, GMU and LOV)
Lisa Vroman as Maria Callas. (Courtesy Hylton Center, GMU and LOV)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va., April 26, 2014 – In late January, Lyric Opera Virginia (LOV) left its home turf in Virginia Beach and paid its first-ever visit to northern Virginia. The occasion: a trial run of Terrence McNally’s operatic drama “Master Class,” featuring popular Broadway star Lisa Vroman in the title role of legendary diva Maria Callas. These performances were a co-production with George Mason University and were mounted at its beautiful new Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas.

The company is now bringing this classy new production to the Tidewater and Richmond Virginia areas of Virginia this weekend, concluding its current season with performances of the play at the Museum of Contemporary art in Virginia Beach on Friday May 2, at Williamsburg’s Kimball Theater on Saturday, May 3 (both at 8 p.m.) and at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center Sunday, May 4 at 2:30 p.m.

Not only will audiences get a chance to enjoy a surprisingly revealing first-class drama that’s won accolades everywhere it’s been performed. The production is also a rare opportunity for area opera lovers and theater goers to enjoy a first rate star turn by a classy, popular Broadway veteran like Lisa Vroman.

Maria Callas (Lisa Vroman) in a pensive moment. (Courtesy GMU-Hylton Center and LOV)
Maria Callas (Lisa Vroman) in a pensive moment. (Courtesy GMU-Hylton Center and LOV)

She’ll be supported in her role by three young up-and-coming Virginia opera singers, Nicole Jenkins of Chesapeake, who will play Sharon Graham; Sarah Kate Walston of Richmond (Sophie de Palma), and Joshua Baumgardner (Tony Candolino), a graduate of James Madison University and a winner of the Mid-Atlantic Region of the Metropolitan Opera Council auditions.

Founded in 2011, Lyric Opera of Virginia showcases widely popular operas and Broadway-style musical theater productions in unique formats designed to be accessible to a wider public. As an example, during its first two seasons, the company “featured a Children’s Chorus of 250 for its production of The King and I as well as the first ever Children’s Opera Camp in Virginia,” according to artistic director Joe Walsh.

The young company’s latest production marks yet another accessibility milestone. It’s a play about a renowned but tragic opera figure while subtly looking underneath the hood of live musical theater to explore the nature of the performing artist rather than dwelling on the music itself.

One of a trilogy of McNally plays that focus on operatic themes, the award-winning “Master Class” (1995) was in fact inspired by a real life series of vocal master classes conducted at Juilliard by celebrated soprano Maria Callas in the early 1970s. At its core, it’s really a one-woman play about the life and times of Callas, the controversial Greek-American soprano whose shooting-star operatic career still engenders fevered discussions among opera fanatics today.

“Master Class” lacks the traditional linear plot of a traditional drama. Instead, Mr. McNally imaginatively employs the vehicle of Callas’ Julliard master classes as a departure point for conjuring up, with uncanny effectiveness, the person and spirit of perhaps the greatest diva of our modern era. Not to worry, opera fans. There’ll be singing, too. But in this play, it’s all done by three young artists who, in the tradition of a real-life master class, will be critiqued en route, sometimes even before they’re finished singing—by the temperamental dramatic soprano who has just retired from the stage at this point in her meteoric career.

As the curtain opens on Mr. McNally’s play, we encounter an older, wiser, Callas. She’s no less exacting with regard to her art, having been battered by life but not defeated by it. This 40-something soprano is still the ultimate diva, though she’s mellowed out maybe just a bit. She expects the eager young singers in her master class to be good, maybe very good vocally. But she knows that’s simply not enough and gets exasperated when she doesn’t see the hunger for excellence that she, herself exemplified in her all-too-brief time in the limelight.

What made Callas at once an extraordinary artist but a controversial one? In an era where chunky, static opera singers considered their costumes sufficient to project character, Callas broke with tradition, imbuing her roles with tremendous passion and conviction, all backed by a voice that, in its prime, had few equals.

Her notorious offstage affairs and quarrels simply added to the legend that she herself had worked hard to create. Leading the kind of offstage life that seemed to beg for tabloid coverage, she embarked on a lengthy, disastrous affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis−the very same Ari who later took Jacqueline Kennedy as his trophy wife after callously tossing Callas—whom he never married—over the side.

Watching filmed or kinescope excerpts of Callas’ performances dating from the 1950s, a contemporary audience might regard her style as somewhat overly formal. Yet today, the essence of her startling innovation survives. Nearly any contemporary opera performance will get a thumbs-down now if its star singers forget they’re also expected to act and do so convincingly.

Image of Callas used in an old Apple print ad. (Creative Commons 2.0)
Image of Callas used in an old Apple print ad. (Creative Commons 2.0)

Sadly, without proper guidance in her early years, it’s likely that the young Maria Callas, hungry for fame and approval, reached up and out too fast. Eager to achieve rapid stardom and fame, this impatient, driven vocalist almost certainly peaked before she was 40 by most accounts.

Musicologists and opera aficionados alike disagree on the reasons. Did she push her vocal cords too strenuously and too early? Or did her rapid weight loss as her career progressed cause diminished support for her instrument? Objectively, it’s hard to say. But in a profession where artists like Placido Domingo can sustain near-peak vocal excellence for 30 years or more, Callas seemed to fall from the opera firmament as suddenly as a modern day Icarus.

This is the Maria Callas we meet in Mr. McNally’s “Master Class.” Perhaps a bit chastened by life but never defeated by it, this Callas is still the ultimate diva, though she’s mellowed out maybe just a bit. She expects the eager young singers in her master class to be good, maybe very good vocally. But she also knows that’s simply not enough. Opera fans today expect their heroes, heroines, and villains to be bigger than life. They will settle for nothing less. And for this, they owe much of their expectations to the exacting standards of Maria Callas. And if you’re an aspiring young singer, don’t simply “try” to be good if you’ve managed to achieve one of the coveted slots in her master class.

For her, “trying” is never good enough. You always have to “be,” to “do.” You channel your character on stage at all times like an active verb.

The character of Maria Callas in Mr. McNally’s drama is open to a variety of interpretations, and over the years, many well-known actresses have taken on the role. In a 2010 performance of the play at the Kennedy Center, Tyne Daly portrayed Callas in haughty, full diva mode, including her vanity, catty humor, and her obvious impatience with anything less than excellence.

In her Manassas appearance as Callas, however, Lisa Vroman applied a more cerebral touch to the role, one that Tidewater and Richmond audiences will experience this weekend. True, her lines were the same ones that Ms. Daly delivered at the Kennedy Center. But Ms. Vroman frequently leads us away from Callas, the Arch-Diva, instead letting us peek inside to explore this artist’s deeply complex and troubled spirit, a tangled inscape whose labyrinth reveals what a treacherous existence is led by nearly any serious artist, particularly by one who is considerably ahead of her time as a pioneer in a pre-feminist age.

Ms. Vroman’s deeply personal interpretation of the role, demonstrated an almost metaphysical grasp of the essential vulnerabilities inherent in a vocal and/or acting career that must somehow co-exist with the need for aggressiveness and single-mindedness in the pursuit of perfection.

Having inhabited a substantial number of key singing roles on Broadway and elsewhere—including Christine in “Phantom of the Opera,” both Fantine and Cosette in “Les Miz,” Marian Parro in “Music Man,” Johanna in the San Francisco Symphony’s Emmy Award-winning “Sweeney Todd”—Ms. Vroman is clearly well qualified to take on the formidable role of Callas in this LOV production. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Ms. Vroman has noted that her performance as Callas also marks the first time she’d ever performed a purely dramatic and essentially non-singing role on stage. Judging from her performance at the Hylton, we’d have to conclude that she’s succeeded in adding another dimension to an already successful career.

Happily, we had the opportunity to speak with with Ms. Vroman prior to that performance about musical theater, art and all things Maria Callas. “You can’t oversimplify Callas,” she said. “She was a complicated character and a complicated artist. She was passionate about what she did and expected that kind of passion, that kind of excellence from others,” particularly the students in “Master Class.”

“When she senses in their attitudes, in their performances, anything less than the pursuit of excellence, that’s when she has a problem with them,” said Ms. Vroman. “This lack of fierceness in the pursuit of art is something she can’t grasp of deal with. She had a difficult life, was very driven, experiencing in childhood simply awful things she never got over. Because of this, she drove herself and drove everyone around her because she was so passionate about her art.”

“But,” she continued, Callas also learned an esential truth about life, namely that “if you speak up, you’re the bad guy but at the same time you’re right,” which makes for controversy.”

It’s Ms. Vroman’s goal to get inside of Callas in her interpretation of the role, to “inhabit her passion, how she drove it, and how she made her choices.” Perhaps a bit like Hyman Roth in “Godfather II,”—who noted famously, “This is the life we have chosen”—Callas was almost fatalistic about her life choices, but clung to them tenaciously nonetheless. “It’s as if she was saying, ‘This is my life, this is my story, this is what I believe, take it or leave it,’” Ms. Vroman noted.

Looking forward to her spring performance of the role, Ms. Vroman had words of praise for the Hylton Center crew as well as her director, Greg Ganakas who will also direct “Master Class” here. “The people, the facilities [in Manassas] are just magnificent. I love how it feels and how it looks,” she said of the facility which she actually helped to open three seasons ago, performing with conductor Tony Maiello and his American Festival Pops Orchestra. “Everyone is wonderfully helpful and wonderful to work with,” she said.

When developing her approach to the play, she found it was “great to have so much time, space is magnificent, love how it feels, love how it looks. All the staff and students worked hard to get you all the resources you could need.” And her director, Mr. Ganakas, is just “the greatest creative mind I have ever met.”

Mr. Ganakas reciprocated Ms. Vroman’s feelings, also noting that “Master Class” meshes almost perfectly with Lyric Opera Virginia’s goal of “producing opera and musical theater in new formats. One of our hallmarks was the production of a 90-minute reduced format opera last year,” he said, noting that newer audiences sometimes need to approach this art form in smaller chunks.

Another new format of sorts, he said, is the idea of producing a work that’s more of a play than an opera, something that perfectly describes “Master Class.” “It’s a play that opera people have long admired,” he said, “and it’s even more interesting for a company like Lyric Opera Virginia, since it’s a play that depends on being staged in smaller, more intimate theaters by theater companies. It’s perfect here, because it’s a better fit in smaller venues.”

Tidewater and Richmond audiences will get a chance to discover this for themselves this weekend when they explore the inner artist and human being known as Maria Callas as vividly re-imagined by Terence McNally and convincingly and movingly channeled by the remarkable Lisa Vroman.

Tickets to Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” are $37 in Virginia Beach and Williamsburg and $35 in Richmond. Performances of the play will take place at the Museum of Contemporary art in Virginia Beach on Friday May 2, at Williamsburg’s Kimball Theater on Saturday, May 3 (both at 8 p.m.) and at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center Sunday, May 4 at 2:30 p.m.

For information and tickets to LOV’s “Master Class,” visit their website here or call the box office at (757) 446-6666. 

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