Arts Beat: Callas Up Close

Florida Opera Theatre explores the legendary soprano as teacher in “Master Class.’’

In 1971, a select group of 25 young opera students got the chance of a lifetime when the woman Leonard Bernstein once described as “the Bible of opera” agreed to tutor them. Their mentor: Maria Callas, the tempestuous Greek soprano who once said, “Opera is a battlefield.”

The teaching sessions, 23 two-hour classes at the Juilliard School, were immortalized in a 1995 Terrence McNally play, Master Class, which will be presented by Florida Opera Theatre Nov. 13, 14 and 15 in the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. 

The play, which highlights opera music by Verdi, Puccini and Bellini, will star Susan Neves as Maria Callas. Neves, who is an operatic singing coach herself, has family ties to Orlando and is a longtime supporter of Florida Opera Theatre. The part doesn’t call for her to sing; only to coach, quite sternly at times: At one point in the play, her imperious character stops one of her charges in mid-note.

“I’m sorry to do this to you,” she says, “but what’s the point of going on with it if it’s all wrong? It’s not a note we’re after here, it’s a stab of pain. The pain of loss.”

Callas’ own career was over at the time she did the tutoring, which lends a poignancy to the proceedings. “All artists are faced with so many highs and lows that it is easy to forget who we are,” says Neves, who has been internationally acclaimed in theaters such as the Opera Bastille in Paris, the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, Gran Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona and opera houses throughout Italy. “In the play, Callas is always looking backward because she is no longer performing and, therefore, has all but lost herself."

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