Maria Callas, also affectionately known to her audience as La Divina, has certainly inspired many performing artists, movies and plays. She is the most exquisite American born Greek Soprano that changed the world of Opera forever in the 50is by bringing temperament and drama to the stage. Her "tempestuous, extravagant cascades of sounds, uncontrolled but full of drama and emotion" catapulted her to the top and led to her performing on every important stage in Europe such as La Scala, Vienna State Opera, Royal Opera House.
Although she was soon married to an older wealthy industrialist, Battista Meneghini, she became famous for her scandalous affaire with one of the richest and crudest men in the world: Aristotle(Ari) Onassis who left her after ordering her to abort his child and married Jacky Kennedy instead which most likely contributed to her early decline of confidence and voice.
Astonishing critics and audiences in over 30 different Operas in the roles such as Violetta, Amina, Norma, Lady Macbeth and Aida, just to mention a few, even the most skeptical had to acknowledge not only the flexibility of her limpid, beautifully poised voice, and her splendid high notes but also her fiery interpretation of character.
Gigi Bermingham fearlessly embodies Callas in all her grandeur Sunday, March 24th, 2012 in Todd Nielsen’s version of the Tony award winning play at the International City Theatre in Long Beach and has absolutely no problem filling this great diva’s shoes on stage.
Having received numerous awards for her solo comedy Non-Vital Organs, herself, playing in classics such as HenryV, Twelth Night, The Heiress, Tartuffe and Cherry Orchard she has also starred in films like Alex and Emma and TV shows such as Hart of Dixie, C.S.I, 90210, Days of Our Lives and recently made her directing debut with You Can’t Take It With you she gets the Greek/Italian accent just right.
Married to a composer, Matthew Goldsby, in real life Mrs. Birmingham brings much understanding to Callas’ character. She even looks like her, sitting on her high chair with her footstool, elegantly, proud and incredibly poised. Hitting every beat she truly wears the audiences heart on her sleeve and much outshines Faye Dunoway’s interpretation of Callas several years past.
The play itself, takes place during the last years of Callas’ career as she teaches master classes at the Julliard School in New York City and gives an insight in her tragic life. Suffering from myopia, which left her nearly blind and later a deteriorating voice she is “helping” students understand how much courage, she calls it Mut (German word for courage), technique and discipline it takes to become a “real artist”.
“Know your limitations” and “attentions must be paid to every little detail” speak of the courage and fear Callas must have installed into her students, often discouraging and criticizing them to the point of emotional break down. Still we believe her struggle as a teacher perfectly. Mrs. Birmingham brings humanity, warmth and expressiveness to Callas’ character and although she barely remembers her accompanist’s-, James Lent, and the stagehand, Jeremy Mascia's, name we forgive Callas and are amused.
Danielle Skalsky, playing first soprano Sophie de Palma convinces us of her innocence and brings out the “ Tigress” in Callas only to win her sympathy in the end of her session. The student brings back the memory of her performances at La Scala and her tumultuous relationship with Ari Onassis who calls her his "canary" and just sees her as someone who is “for sale like everybody else” and makes him look “more classy” in public.
Tyler Milliron charms the audience not only with his voice but also with his acting ability as a handsome Tenor, almost gets Callas' unfiltered sense of humor and tries to flirt only to be barked at and praised by the “grande dame” all at once.
Jennifer Shelton’s voice, as Second Soprano Sharon Graham, by far trumps all of the others. Drop dead gorgeous combined with an incredible stage presence and courage she fills the auditorium with her exquisite sound singing the role of Lady Macbeth for Callas not once but twice. Callas inspired by the voice, takes her through every beat of the character of Lady Macbeth showing her new things she never thought about during her session. Miss Shelton hypnotizes the audience with her powerful fiery voice and leaves us wanting more. The Aria is sung with so much passion one can’t imagine why some people wouldn’t like Opera. This is Opera at it’s best which would make Callas proud hearing if she was still alive today.
The play is a great homage to the artist and the cast is a rare gem.
If you want intensity, music, drama and humor in one night you should definitely go see this play. Opera fan or not, you may just learn something new about classical music and what it takes to become an artist.
The play runs March 20-April 14, 2013 at International City Theatre in Long Beach. Ticket Information: 562.436.4610 or www.InternationalCityTheatre.org
Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E Ocean Blvd.