By Marilyn Lester . . .
When you’re an actress, a vocalist that handles musical theater as well as opera, and have a resemblance to a world-famous legend of the opera world, what do you do? If you’re Shelley Cooper, you create the one-woman work, La Divina: The Last Interview of Maria Callas. It’s an award-winning show (Pick of the Fringe, Hollywood Fringe 2021; and Best Individual Performance in a Drama, Orlando Fringe 2021), and its one-night-only performance at the United Solo Theatre Festival proved why.
The subject of Cooper’s presentation, Maria Callas (December 2, 1923 – September 16, 1977) has been portrayed many times in popular culture. Despite her fame and successes, the diva—nicknamed the Divine One, or La Divina—led a continuously troubled life, so there’s plenty of research from which to draw, which is one of the benefits of selecting Callas as a subject. Yet, Cooper, with such a wide palette to choose from, has chosen wisely, targeting excellent main points to zero in on, and building a fairly complete picture of it.
Indeed, Callas did grant an interview to journalist Mike Wallace, known for his tough, nothing-is-sacred interview approach. And so, for the TV program, “60 Minutes,” on February 3, 1974, Wallace conducted the interview (viewable on YouTube) at her home in Paris. Wallace, true to form, didn’t hesitate to ask La Divina about “walk-outs and sicknesses and affairs and anger and jealousy” before asking, “what’s the drama?” As a monologue, Cooper is, in a sense, both Wallace and Callas. But the skill she exhibits is to be Callas responding to the question, which implies a present figure in the interviewer. She does this seamlessly, allowing us to imagine and believe in the presence of Wallace. In fact, shortly before the interview, Callas had moved to Paris, withdrawing from the world at large. From that time until her death from an apparent heart attack at age 53, she effectively had become a recluse.
Being an operatic singer with a glorious voice herself, Cooper peppers La Divina with arias that Callas was known for. The first was “O mio babbino caro” (“Oh, my dear papa”) from the comic opera Gianni Schicchi (Giacomo Puccini). The aria, one of the most famous and recognizable in the world, was not in Callas’ opera repertoire, but was one she sang mainly at concerts. Cooper made an excellent choice with this one, giving us something very familiar and exceptionally beautiful as a means of drawing us into the presentation and into Callas’ life.
Yet, to some degree, La Divina isn’t an easy show; and that’s down to Callas herself. Her reputation was one of a troublesome diva—haughty and difficult. In his portrayal of her in 1995’s Broadway play, Master Class, Terrence McNally presented her as a larger-than-life, caustic and commanding pedagogue with an ability to be humorous at the same time. Master Class ends with a monologue about sacrifice taken for art, a thread woven into Cooper’s La Divina. Cooper’s challenge was to give humanity to the diva. She indeed presented vulnerability in her Callas, but a touch more of that, as well as humor, would have been welcome.
During her life, Callas was controversial, as was the nature and quality of her voice. It was huge, with a range that both bothered and inspired. She defied classification—but her voice was distinct. And what Cooper understood and portrayed well in La Divina was Callas’ focus on being an actress as well as a vocalist. In fact, critics sometimes dismissed her as being merely an actress. Callas considered herself first a musician, an instrument of the orchestra. With other works foremost in Callas’ repertoire—“Libiamo” (La Traviata), “Habanera” (Carmen), “Una Voce Poco Fa” (Il Barbiere di Siviglia)—Cooper splendidly gave a musical taste of the diva’s greatness and of the body of work that made her legendary.
Tragically, and for reasons still disputed, Callas suffered a vocal decline that cut short her operatic career at age 40. She did make a comeback briefly with Tosca, and Cooper’s “Vissi d’Arte” illustrates well this phase of the diva’s life. By the end of La Divina, Cooper’s Callas has recognized her career is finished, among other disappointments. She says, “I’m at peace with myself. I don’t cry, I cope.” This statement puts a button on the presentation and summation of an intelligent and affecting portrayal of La Divina. Ending the show with a reprise of “O mio babbino caro” was both touching and definitive.