‘Master Class’ star Lisa Vroman on Callas, music and life

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)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va., May 1, 2014 – Tidewater audiences will have a unique opportunity this weekend to experience a behind-the-scenes look and the mysterious and volatile life of a famous opera star when Lyric Opera Virginia presents Terrence McNally’s award-winning play “Master Class.”

Featuring well-known Broadway soprano Lisa Vroman in the title role of Maria Callas, performances of the play will take place at the Museum of Contemporary art in Virginia Beach on Friday May 2 and at Williamsburg’s Kimball Theater on Saturday, May 3.

For those not familiar with the term, a “master class” is generally understood as a live public recital by a small, select group of generally advanced student vocalists, instrumentalists or performers that’s critiqued en route by a famous artist.

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

The aim of the master class is twofold: for the students, it’s an opportunity to gain insights from an acknowledged star that could give their careers that final boost that’s always needed to enter the top tier. For the audience, it’s an opportunity to see the kind of relentless work that’s required to achieve true artistic excellence.

In Mr. McNally’s play, based on an actual series of master classes held by Maria Callas in the early 1970s, the recently retired singer coaches—sometimes sharply—a trio of young singers who long for success. But in the process, she also provides surprising insights into her own tempestuous life and career.

Sprightly, trim and elegant in person, Ms. Vroman found she could readily identify with Callas in this, her very first role in a “pure” stage play. After all, like Ms. Vroman, even the grand “La Callas” was in the end a singing actress, breaking new ground in creating real, authentic characters in an art form where such an approach was once thought of as radical.

Ms. Vroman brings a world of experience with her to these performances. She made her auspicious Broadway debut in 1990 in the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love,” and never looked back.

Having since then inhabited a substantial number of major singing roles on Broadway and in light opera—including her portrayal of Christine in “Phantom of the Opera,” her interpretation of both Fantine and Cosette in “Les Miz,” her portrayal of Marian Parro in “Music Man” and Johanna in the San Francisco Symphony’s Emmy Award-winning concert performance of “Sweeney Todd,” and her performance as Rosalinda in New Jersey Opera’s production of “Die Fledermaus”—Ms. Vroman is abundantly qualified to take on the formidable role of Callas in this production.

“A character like Callas is sometimes too easy to oversimplify,” she notes. “But she was a complicated character and a complicated artist. She was almost Shakespearian in a way, and I felt I had to take on the various layers of her character to express them for the audience. It is an amazing experience.”

While Ms. Vroman initially found the task of interpreting Callas to be a daunting one, things became easier as she understood the subtle insights of the playwright in the way he reveals the inner Callas.

“The more I read the text, the more I fell in love with the play and the words,” she says. “While you can’t just copy someone on stage or simply mimic them or their mannerisms, you can apply the playwright’s understanding to your own inner life to better project the character on stage. That’s why each actress portraying Callas in this drama really creates a different play,” she notes.

She also listened carefully to a selection of Callas’ many recordings, noting again that even for the famous singer, “each one was still different, each carried a certain point of view,” likely depending on where the artist’s life and career were going at any given point of time, all of which would have influenced a given performance.

Ms. Vroman also connects on a personal level with the main premise of “Master Class,” namely that working with student artists is, at least in the best of situations, a two-way information exchange that establishes a vital bridge between student and veteran performer.

She recalls working with students in the past, including music and drama students at Northern Virginia’s George Mason University where she and LOV traveled in late January to stage a trial run of “Master Class,” working with students and staff at the school’s Hylton Center, located in Manassas.

She finds that performing arts students in all areas of study experience the same kinds of issues, ranging from insight to stage fright. “Whether they sing in English, prefer art songs, opera, Broadway or pop, it doesn’t matter. You have to connect with them on their own level,” she says. “But they learn a lot from each other.”

Intriguingly, she observes that “theater kids seem more comfortable on stage than the opera kids,” possibly due to the fact that young performers in more popular art forms have gotten more opportunity to work before the public.

Ms. Vroman expresses a genuine concern that too many vocal students today are getting off on the wrong foot, feeling the pressure to make it big while still quite young and neglecting the study of skills and techniques that can make for a more lasting career. They often miss “simple things, like understanding that a throat is connected to a body, and all need to work together. But even some who are 22 years old or more don’t even have a clue as to how everything works together.”

She finds, as does Callas in “Master Class,” that this focus by some students on potential stardom over the more difficult pursuit of excellence is “heartbreaking” although it’s very much a product of our times.

But that didn’t deter Maria Callas from trying to correct her students’ trajectory before it was too late to help. And it hasn’t stopped Lisa Vroman either both in her own career and in her interactions with young students hoping to emulate her.

“I’m still duking it out with pop music and its bad example,” she says. “I’ve been making my path elsewhere and I don’t regret any of it.” It all sounds like the right way to approach the life of Maria Callas on stage. And audiences will get a chance to see what happens next this weekend in Lyric Opera Virginia’s can’t-miss performances of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class.”


Tickets to “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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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17
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