By Sarah Downs
“I am a woman and I am a serious artist, and I want to be so judged.”
Callas. She needs no introduction. Complex, theatrical, glamorous, Maria Callas – “La Divina” as she came to be known – was the original and true diva of the 20th century. Among the artistic 1%. She demanded of others no more than she demanded of herself, and for that she was unfairly labeled ‘difficult.’ She was ultimately misunderstood, both as an artist and a person.
In La Divina, The Last Interview of Maria Callas, based on an interview Callas gave with Mike Wallace, Shelley Cooper sets the story straight, in an insightful, layered performance that honors both the ‘prima’ and the ‘donna’ in ‘prima donna.’ Callas the artist, the supreme professional, who could bring an audience to tears with a few simple musical phrases; and Callas the wounded child — dismissed, tormented and ultimately abandoned.
You feel Callas’s keen intelligence and emotional depth. You also feel her loneliness, raised in a joyless home with an overbearing mother. When Maria Callas was born, for the first several days of her life, her mother couldn’t bring herself to look at her own baby, so disappointed was she that Callas was not a boy. (Thank you, patriarchy!) What a perfect metaphor for her life.
“I don’t cry, I cope.”
In simple black turtleneck, skirt and chic jewelry, Shelley Cooper conveys Callas’s innate elegance and theatricality. Cooper wisely does not attempt to impersonate Callas; rather she delves into La Divina’s soul, embodying the singer in pace, poise and gesture. With her large expressive eyes, and richly textured soprano voice, Cooper is so believable you begin to feel you are actually seeing Callas there in front of you.
Cooper takes her time to listen to the questions posed by the absent (and silent) Mike Wallace. Callas chose her words carefully. She possessed a keen intelligence, a complete understanding of the nature of art, of what she did and why, and the capacity to articulate it. It’s what set her apart. She discusses her dramatic weight loss, which she did partly because she felt her face needed to be more angular in order to be more effectively expressive and partly in response to bias against heavy singers. However, swift weight loss can put and edge on the voice. Thus, losing 60 pounds in one year did La Divina’s instrument no favors.
“Only when I sing do I feel loved.”
Throughout the evening, Cooper sang excerpts from several operas, including the seductive “Habanera” from Carmen and the sparkling “Libiamo” from La Traviata. However, it is in the formidably dramatic “Vissi D’arte” from Tosca (one of Callas’s major triumphs), that Cooper truly let the dogs out, delivering on every level. It was deeply moving.
For Callas, meeting Aristotle Onassis was love at first sight. It is inexplicable. Onassis hated opera, yet he wooed to his side one of the greatest singers of the century — and then proceeded to break her. He didn’t want her to sing so she performed less and less, spending more time in his wealthy orbit. And when he abandoned her, Onassis gaslit Callas so successfully she believed her abandonment was her own doing (and undoing).
“The essence of an artist is not to fool the public.”
Maria Callas never tried to fool anyone; she had too much respect for herself and her audience for that. She never phoned it in. Listen to La Divina’s early recordings – the gleam of her instrument, liquid mezza voce, and impeccable portamenti. Until the turmoil of Aristotle Onassis, a too swift and dramatic weight loss, and long absences from the stage strained her instrument and exhausted her spirit.
Brava, Shelley Cooper, for bringing this amazing woman back to life, for restoring her dignity and honoring her beauty.
La Divina, The Last Interview of Maria Callas, written and performed by Shelley Cooper, directed by Mariangela Chatzistamatiou.
Presented by presented by United Solo as part of the United Solo Theater Festival. At Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd St., NYC., October 8th at 7:00pm.