Peter Rothstein generally does not revisit shows he has directed — annual holiday remounts notwithstanding.
The Theater Latté Da artistic director has made an exception with “Master Class,” which opens Saturday at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. Terrence McNally based his 1995 play on a series of master classes Maria Callas held at Juilliard in the early 1970s. Thirteen years after he first directed the show, Rothstein felt that it would be a good character study for his friend and frequent collaborator Sally Wingert.
“She was an artist,” Wingert said of the famous soprano before a recent rehearsal. “Callas never calls singing a craft. It’s an art.”
Callas was among the most serious artists who gave themselves to opera. Fierce in her singing, temperamental and deeply emotional, Callas brought an intensely dramatic interpretation to her roles. Her voice was perhaps not the best — critics considered it shrill at the top end — but Callas was a creature of nature who dominated audiences with breathtaking confidence and artistry.
‘Bigger than big’
“She was bigger than big,” Wingert said. “She’s on a par with Marilyn Monroe as far as iconic 20th-century women.”
It is tricky to find an analog for Callas among today’s opera superstars. Anna Netrebko, who is singing Lady Macbeth to fabulous reviews at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, draws comparisons for her stage presence, but opera in 2014 occupies less of the public consciousness than it did 70 years ago. The late tenor Luciano Pavarotti became a superstar who enjoyed broad popularity, and Renée Fleming introduced many Americans to the art when she sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl in February.
Otherwise, as Wingert asked, “Can you name five top sopranos in opera today?”
Beyond her stage presence, Callas became legendary for a personal life that became entangled with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and the intrigue that followed his late-life romance with Jacqueline Kennedy.
Callas fought with impresarios and famously turned down an invitation to debut at the Met in the late 1940s because she felt she was “too fat” to play Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Although she would become a statuesque performer with sleek cheekbones and dark beauty, her early life affected her image.
“I did not know she was a fat, ugly girl, and she carried that bag around with her,” Wingert said.
A new appreciation of legacy
Rothstein, who directed Jodi Kellogg in the role at Park Square Theatre in January 2001, said he looks at the play differently now than he did almost 14 years ago.
“This idea of legacy, what she was leaving behind, feels much different to me at 48 than it did when I was 34,” he said. “The play feels more universal because of where I am.”
McNally’s play allows Callas flights of reverie, when she walks away from the class she is teaching. In these moments, the diva reflects on her life, which ended at age 53 in 1977 — a few years after her Juilliard sessions.
In an epilogue to the master classes, Callas wrote in 1972, “Whether I continue singing or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that you use whatever you have learned wisely.”
How one spends the remaining days of a life, and looks back, is crucial to that sense of legacy, Rothstein said.
He also has grown in his appreciation for the vulnerability Callas allowed herself as a performer. Her reckless abandon in performance created an event — a lasting impression that superseded the opera. Callas would scold anyone who asserted that this was the case, such was her dedication to the pre-eminence of composers, but it’s true.
“I felt that watching Vanessa Redgrave in ‘Ghosts’ in the West End,” Rothstein said. “I could see how an audience clings to the memories of being at that performance, all experiencing it together.
“People who saw Callas say that same thing. I would give anything to have been able to see her in the theater.”
Lonely at the top
Wingert has been on a roll, playing characters that feel singular even if there are other actors on stage. Her turn in “The Receptionist” by Dark and Stormy in December focused on her, and she recently played the solo show “Rose” for Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. There are several other actors in “Master Class,” but it’s really about Callas.
“I don’t really love one-person shows because they are so lonely,” Wingert said, half laughing. “I love the audience experience because it’s provocative to mix it up — so much is direct address. But the dressing room is kind of lonely.”
Being Callas on stage has a certain aloof requirement. She was unique, and in 1971 she was feeling a mortality that would have outstripped the glory of her memories. Those are, indeed, lonely moments.