Lady Good Diva

One of the biggest recent stories on the entertainment scene concerns the biographical portrayal of a historical enigma: a woman whose life was clouded by controversy, a woman whom millions of adoring followers elevated from obscure nobody to near goddess. Fueling the buzz is the starring actress, a charismatic performer and tabloid cover girl notorious for her off-stage behavior. No, I'm not referring to Madonna as Eva Peron, but rather to Oscar- and Emmy Award-winner Faye Dunaway in the role of La Divina herself, opera superstar Maria Callas.

Heading the first national touring company of Terrence McNally's Master Class, Dunaway and the production have relocated to Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse after spending two weeks at Palm Beach's Royal Poinciana Playhouse. Still flourishing on Broadway in its second season, the drama -- based on Callas's coaching sessions given 25 years ago at New York City's Juilliard School -- won the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics' Circle awards as best play of 1996. Its success is heartening; true, there's little risk in casting one famous personality in the juicy role of another, but McNally flirts with box-office disaster by gambling that modern audiences care about the twin themes of professional commitment and the importance of art. Thanks to Dunaway's impassioned and technically intricate performance, this version of Master Class hits the theatrical jackpot.

Only the fourth actress to play the role (Zoe Caldwell, Patti Lupone, and Dixie Carter appeared on Broadway), Dunaway is something of a casting long shot. Just three years ago Andrew Lloyd Webber tapped her to play Norma Desmond in the Los Angeles production of Sunset Boulevard; then, unhappy with her voice, he closed down the entire show rather than let her appear. Her victorious re-emergence as Callas accomplishes the comeback that the opera singer often contemplated but never attempted.

Arguably the most famous soprano of this century, Callas built her reputation in only twenty years -- with just ten of those regarded as truly exceptional -- before unofficially retiring in 1965, twelve years before her death at age 53. Born to Greek emigre parents in New York City in 1923, she relocated to Greece at thirteen and, at seventeen, accepted four powerhouse roles with the Athens Opera. Even though her talent was not fully developed at this time, her determination to sing any major role offered -- without regard for its vocal demands -- was to become one of her defining characteristics. Callas caused a sensation by bringing acting to the operatic stage; giving meaning and nuance to every vocal line, she invested roles with heartfelt emotion in an era when other opera stars merely planted their feet on-stage, flung their arms out wide, and sang. Certainly other singers had more beautiful voices, but no one was more fascinating to watch.

Callas left the stage at the height of her fame, but vocal changes caused by dieting away 62 pounds in fifteen months -- plus the strain of her exacting roles -- had diminished her abilities. Although she no longer garnered rave reviews, Callas continued to make headlines. The press had a field day reporting her affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis and her ugly divorce from her husband/ manager, 30 years her senior. Not even her death, alone in her Paris apartment, escaped speculation: Despite her demise being attributed to a heart attack, her body was hurriedly cremated, inspiring rumors of suicide. Fanning the rumors was the purported existence of a handwritten note containing the lines of the aria in which Ponchielli's Gioconda resolves to end it all.

Unquestionably Callas's life offers any playwright a mother lode of dramatic material, and this is not the first time McNally has mined it. His 1985 The Lisbon Traviata derives its title from a Callas performance and features a crazed fan searching for a recently discovered recording of Callas singing Violetta in Portugal's capital; McNally devotes much of the first act to rhapsodizing about Callas's greatness. This is familiar territory for the playwright, a lifelong opera aficionado who makes frequent appearances on the opera quiz segment of the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts heard on classical radio stations nationwide. In an interview quoted in Best American Plays 1983-1992, he recalled his solitary childhood: "I made a little stage for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts every Saturday. I had little figures of Rigoletto and Aida. I'd move the scenery. To me that was more real than life." With Master Class, McNally still manipulates his characters, but his intriguing writing makes them anything but two-dimensional.

The lights inside the Parker Playhouse remain on when Dunaway walks onto the stage at the outset of Master Class. Before we can compare a kaleidoscope of celluloid images with flesh and blood, she heads to the stage's edge and begins appraising us, judging our appearance and intentions. Her unflinching gaze penetrates the room, transforming the audience into spectators at Callas's master class. The actress is aware that we have come for a rare look at a legend, but if that is the only reason we have come, she warns us, we might as well leave now. It's hard to know which dramatic sorceress has you in her spell -- Dunaway or Callas -- when the house lights begin to dim and the line between life and art starts to blur.

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