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BWW Interviews: Monica Cappuccini as Maria Callas in MASTER CLASS Now Through Nov 6

Monica Cappuccini returned to the stage three and a half years ago after seventeen years away from acting. Now, she's mounting what she calls a dream role, the role of Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's play Master Class, playing now through November 6 at Hillbarn Theatre.

Master Class recently had a Broadway Revival starring Tyne Daly in New York. The production received high praises from critics. Cappuccini attributes the success of the show to Callas' very human, very relatable life and to the playwright's brilliant wording — wording which required her to memorize two hours worth of lines. Cappuccini spent two months memorizing the lines and researching the life of the real Maria Callas. She says the role and audiences' reactions are very gratifying for her as an actor, and she hopes audiences will continue to support the show and Hillbarn Theatre.

Read on for the full Broadway World interview.

Describe the show.

Well, it's based loosely on Maria Callas toward the end of her career when she wasn't singing anymore. Her career was pretty much over, even though she kept saying that she was going to make a comeback, and she had tried in a world tour, but it was not successful, her voice really was failing her. So, she was persuaded to come to Juilliard and give some master classes, and this is what this is based loosely on. 

But it's just a platform, basically, for the playwright Terrence McNally to talk about her life as she goes off on... because it's really, basically, she was very terrible, she wasn't a good teacher. And she was a diva, after all. So, everything was basically about herself. And he uses this platform to have her, you know, reminisce and talk about her life. 

She was a very complicated person, a very interesting character because her life and her life experiences. She was very well put together on the outside, but a complete emotional wreck inside. So, she is a writer's dream, in that respect. And he uses words very, very wordy, an extremely good writer. He gives you the tools that you need to do the best job you can with this character. And he's researched it very, very well. So, I feel very fortunate to have this writer at my back. Even if you spoke the words, you really couldn't go wrong. 

So it's a platform for him to explore her life, explore her incredible complicated personality. She was beloved and hated by so many people, I find even now, in the younger generation, I find very few people who do not know who Maria Callas was, and she died in 1977. So, her legacy has remained, it's still very, very powerful.

Are you an opera person yourself? 

No. Not at all. I'm Italian, of course, so, I think I have it in my blood. I've always loved the spectacle of opera. I'm not an opera buff by any stretch of the imagination, but I love it when I hear it. I think it's just in my Italian blood. I'm not a musician. I don't sing, even though I have a passable voice. 

So, one of the difficult parts for me was that I have to time the monologues to the music, and that was the most difficult challenge for me because, actually, I couldn't do it at first. I felt like I was talking like a speeding train. I'm like three minutes late to the end. And I kept practicing and practicing and finally it just came naturally, and now, I'm actually sometimes ahead of the music. But, I've been listening to the music cues. It's been actually a very interesting learning experience for me, too, and of course, the singers on stage are so wonderful, and they help me a great deal. Together it all came out fine. 

Some people don't like opera. Will they still enjoy Master Class?

Absolutely, without question, because her personality, her character, who she is, is just so fascinating. I mean, of course, it would help if you knew something about her life, not necessarily opera, but of her life, you know, her unhappy childhood, her sense that her mother really hated her. She's the ugly duckling. She married an older man, way older than herself. She was fat. She considered herself ugly. The tumultuous relationship, all consuming passionate relationship she had for Aristotle Onassis. That he abandoned her. The fact that he asked her to have an abortion with his child. All these things make for a story of... a very human story of life. It may not be clear, some of the references may not be clear to people who do not know Callas' life. But I think they are accessible emotionally to most people.

What makes Master Class such a relatable, moving show?

It's very dramatic. I think it has some wonderful comic moments alongside the very poignant moments. I think it picks you up, it lightens you, gives you like a little comic relief, and then it plunges you down into the soul of this woman who is completely exposing herself to an audience. She makes herself completely vulnerable, and I think that touches people. 

Some people, I can also feel it, are very uncomfortable with the proximity of me and actually looking them in the eye sometimes. I think, even thought it makes people uncomfortable, it draws them in, it makes them empathize and sympathize with this person. You can feel that coming back from them. There were two young teenagers in the audience. And they were just brought to tears. And then, as soon as I started opening up at the end of the first act, they really paid attention. It was really quite gratifying. 

What attracted you to this role?

Well, as an actress, it's an incredibly satisfying role. It's an actor's dream role because it it takes you, you have to draw from so many places in yourself, whether you experienced them or not. As an actor, you're trying to go places where you've never been before, even if you have never experienced whatever she has experienced, you have to draw from your own experience and something that gives you that little extra to make it real for everybody. I personally empathize a great deal with her. I had a similar childhood. I don't really want to go into that. Even though that's not me now, I can draw from those experiences. I empathized with her immediately after I read the play. I read it, and I said, I really feel that I can do this role. So, on many levels, both professionally as an actor, as a challenge, and also emotionally, I think I knew I could deal with it.

How much research do you have to do for a role like this?

Lots. I got the part in May. We started rehearsing in September. So I spent June, July and August learning the lines. I came to rehearsal with the lines learnt. But in the meantime, YouTube is wonderful. There's so much information on YouTube. The music. Videos. There are documentaries on YouTube. Movies of Callas. So many people have so many opinions about her, you know, from being the most wonderful thing in the world to the worst thing in the world. I read books. There is other reference materials. So, lots of research. Listen to the music. Letting her voice fill my head. Watching videos of her. Her mannerisms. The way she spoke. 

How do you approach a role like this? What do you do to stay true to the original, yet make your version stand out from previous productions?

I didn't think about other productions. I know there's some pretty dynamic, wonderful people who've played this role over the years, and just recently Tyne Daly in New York, of course. I purposely did not go anywhere to look at videos of other people. I really didn't want to be influenced by them. And I just listened to my director, who was wonderful. You had made a comment in your review that I didn't play her as aggressive as others have, but I didn't see her that way. I saw that she was forceful, that she was dynamic, that she was strong, but she was really someone who was looking for love always in her life, the love that she never had or felt, and that was translated into trying to make people love her wherever she went. And that's the impression I got when I read about her. So, I wanted to give her presence, I wanted to give her strength, but I also wanted, mainly, to show her vulnerable side. 

I couldn't be Maria Callas. Nobody can ever play Maria Callas. But, as an actor, you have to be essence of Maria Callas, but there's also so much from the actor that needs to come through. Otherwise, what's the point of doing it? I mean I don't want to become a mimic or a monkey of somebody else. That's boring. 

How do you get into character before each show? Any rituals?

Not really. By the time the show started, she was really so much in my heart. Rituals? You know I warm up. I always repeat the first line of the show. If I can get through the first sentence, I'll be OK.

She had one little ritual that I replicated, and that is that she had a little picture of the Madonna and child, a small little portrait that she carried with her up until she went on stage. And I have a similar little thing, sort of icon, and that's what I carried on, just before I went on stage, and said, "OK. This is what Maria did. This is what I'm gonna do." 

That's a lot of lines to memorize? How do you do it?

How do I do it? Oh, my god, I have no idea. It took me two months. I was very disciplined about it. I worked two to three hours on it every day, six days a week, for two months. It takes me a long time to learn lines... never used to, but the older you get the harder it gets. I recorded the play. I spoke the play into a recorder, slowly. So, I would take my headphones, read and read and read it, and then say lines, listen to it on the recording, see if I got it right, play the next line, you know, all kinds of things. The trigger approach - every line has a trigger for the next line so that you work out what that trigger was going to be, so that eventually it flows organically to you. It's hard. it's very every hard. But it had to be done. I wanted to play the role. It had to be done. And I'm just so glad I had that much time. 

Do you have a favorite part of the play?

I really like my time with Sophie in the first act when she is upset, and I'm trying to get her to understand that she has to give me this. She sees the passion in Sophie, she wants to bring it out, and so she pushes her and pushes her. And then she pushes her to the point where Sophie gets upset and cries. And then, she becomes very soft and, "OK I'm going to tell you a story now. I'm going to tell you a story about when I was at La Scala and I sang these words and the audience gasped." And then she has this handkerchief, which came organically from the rehearsal process. It's not in the script. And it was a very tender moment. It's almost like she's helping her child or a daughter understand. I like that very much.

I also feel very close to the last monologue where she's talking to Aristotle about her child, how she aborted for him, and how she talks about her work, the compensation, the applause, the work is recompense. 

I also like when I also tell some member of the audience that they don't have a look.

Now that opening night has passed, closing is quickly approaching. What are you going to do when it's all over.

Oh god, I don't know. I'm going to go to Hawaii for a week. 

As an actress, I'm beginning to get some recognition. And I love it. It's what I was meant to do. I don't know where it's all going, but I just adore it.


Master Class, by Terrence McNally

Now through November 6, 2011

Hillbarn Theatre - Foster City, California


Photos Courtesy of Hillbarn Theatre.


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