What is the essence of an artist? And how do they make themselves unique and entertaining? In my view, an artist is an extremely creative individual who demonstrates the ability to arouse one’s emotions and tantalize their senses, causing them to feel alive. And that’s exactly what I felt during Thursday’s dress-rehearsal preview of La Divina: The Last Interview of Maria Callas, now playing at the lovely Black Box Theatre in downtown Moline.
Directed by Mariangela Chatzistamatiou, and written and performed by Shelley Cooper, this production is a gorgeous tribute to Maria Callas, one of the most renowned and influential opera singers ever to grace the world’s stage. Cooper is the assistant professor of musical theatre at Augustana College, and she is certainly what I would define as a genuine artist. She has also performed around the world for companies such as Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Monroe Symphony, and multiple other venues. And I was stunned by the high-level of talent this young lady has and her ability to captivate my attention from the moment she walked on the stage.
I have never been a huge fan of opera, but the way Cooper sings in this show really moved me. When she belts out the big notes, it was like my soul was being pierced with a million good-vibration arrows that resonated throughout my body. Accompanied by Dr. Luke Tyler (a lifelong student and performer of piano), her performance reminded me of that of Jenny Lind, another famed opera singer who was also known as the “Swedish Nightingale” due to her beautiful voice.
Maria Callas was an American-born Greek soprano who was often praised for her wide-ranging vocal and dramatic interpretations. Her repertoire ranged from the operas of Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini, and further on to the works of Verdi and Puccini. Her musical talents led her to being hailed as La Divina (“the Divine one”), and throughout this show, we learn more about how Callas – although an incredible singer – was often plagued with insecurities just as any ordinary person might be. She was self-conscious about her weight, which led to a significant weight loss, and she lamented the fact that she had to wear corrective eyeglasses. This aspect of her personality was easy to relate to, especially with all the expectations that are put on American women to look a certain way.
During this one-woman play, Callas is being interviewed by Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, who we never see, but is being talked to as if he were sitting right in front of her. Cooper was convincing with her dialogue as she carefully paused in between her thoughts and listened to the questions being asked of her character. The interview covers aspects of the famous singer’s life that include her affair with the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis and her reputation as being somewhat of a diva. Callas, however, describes herself as being a perfectionist, simply trying to be the best performer she can be in order to please her audience.
La Divina's set design, by Lora Adams, consisted of a large, decorative wooden chair and side tables with floral arrangements on them. There was a small divider behind the chair with a garment hanging from it that appeared to be a piece of wardrobe that Cooper might put on at any time. David Miller's lighting design reflected blue and purple hues that softened the look of the entire set as the solo actress went from sitting and delivering her lines to standing under the spotlight when she sang.
Cooper was dressed in a black skirt and basic black turtleneck accented with a pearl necklace and great sparkling earrings that shimmered under the lights. She also had a clear face shield on that did not distract in the least, as far as I was concerned. And it appeared to me that the actress did physically resemble Maria Callas, which made the whole experience even more authentic.
After I arrived at the Black Box Theatre, I happened to choose a seat that was positioned directly in front of Cooper as she sang, so I felt as if she was singing right to me. The actress came across as very sophisticated and had magnificent stage presence, utilizing her eyes and face to the utmost to convey the vast array of emotions that Callas was known for. And while the entire production ran just under 60 minutes – it was one of the shortest plays I've seen – it was packed full of entertainment and awesome music. Like I said, I have never been a huge fan of opera. But between the fantastic singing, intriguing storyline, and dramatic acting of La Divina: The Last Interview of Maria Callas, I found myself pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this show.
La Divina: The Last Interview of Maria Callas runs at the Black Box Theatre (1623 Fifth Avenue, Moline) through March 28, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)284-2350 or visiting TheBlackBoxTheatre.com.