Viva la Divina - Stephanie Beacham in Master Class

Candia McKormack witnesses a master class in acting as Stephanie Beacham plays the great soprano Maria Callas

Viva La Divina

Candia McKormack witnesses a master class in acting as Stephanie Beacham plays the great soprano Maria Callas

“Nobody cares about tears. Nobody cares about your damp pillow. It is all about… the music!”

Even if you’re not particularly a fan of operatic music, you will surely have heard of Maria Callas. Born in America to Greek parents in 1923, she was, and probably remains, one of the most renowned opera singers of all time.

Maria, AKA Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos, had a dramatic life that was filled with the most incredible highs, and indeed lows worthy of Verdi’s most tragic heroines. A fat, plain-looking and bespectacled girl in her earlier life, she felt that she lived in the shadow of her prettier, older blonde sister. Her mismatched relationships included, famously, an affair with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who treated her monstrously. The coarse ‘Ari’ would undermine her self-confidence until the needy Maria would do his bidding; she was even ready to give up her successful career as a singer for him…

You would probably, then, be expecting a play about her to be a pretty depressing affair. You’d expect to leave the theatre feeling emotionally wrung out… possibly a little in need of a jolly good belly laugh and a drink or two. It’s difficult to explain how watching the wonderful Stephanie Beacham playing Callas makes you feel. I certainly hadn’t expected to laugh as much as I did. Her portrayal of ‘La Divina’ is fabulous; she struts the stage with confidence during the ‘master class’, talking directly to the audience (even poking fun at us for not having a ‘look’ – “You HAVE to get a LOOK!” she admonishes), and then skittishly skips around like a pig-tailed girl at her seventh Birthday party enjoying being the centre of attention. Confusing, maybe, but Maria Callas was a complex character, full of contradictions, and it takes a great actor to get the many facets of her personality across as beautifully as Stephanie Beacham manages.

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Stephanie is supported by five other actors on stage: there are three beautifully-voiced actors playing the part of her students: Robyn North plays Greek Italian Sophie de Palma, Christopher Jacobsen is Tony ‘Mr Tony Tight Pants’ Candelino, and Pamela Hay is Sharon Graham. Sharon is initially intimidated into leaving the stage without singing a note by Callas who criticises her evening gown. Returning from ‘throwing up in the ladies’ room’, Sharon bravely gives it another go. As Maria Callas teaches her the fine art of making a dramatic entrance, she asks the nervous Sharon, “Do you believe that some women have balls, Sharon?” “Some women, yes,” she replies. “Verdi is daring you to show us yours!” Sharon goes on to give an outstanding vocal and dramatic performance. You can almost forgive Maria for her blunt techniques when it results in such greatness from her students.

Other support is from pianist and musical director Manny (played by David Harvey), who effortlessly holds the proceedings together and seems to know how to cajole and smooth over the irascible Callas, and stagehand (Scott Hazell) whom Callas shows her irritation at for his seeming lack of grace and inability to pander suitably to her diva-like needs.

Between master classes with students, we are taken on an emotional journey through Callas’s life; her triumphs at La Scala, her personal sacrifices, her varying health issues and her loathing of her rivals, and we emerge feeling as though we understand a little more about this icon of operatic theatre.

Terrence McNally’s superb play first opened in 1995 and has gone on to win the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and the Tony Award for Best Play. As an audience, one is made to feel part of a master class with La Divina herself and, on leaving the theatre, the overriding feeling is that of having just witnessed a master class in the art of truly great acting.

Master Class continues until Saturday, February 26th at Everyman Theatre, Regent Street, Cheltenham, GL50 1HQ, tel: 01242 572573, www.everymantheatre.org.uk

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