The diva in me

Patti LuPone has had a remarkable number of near-encounters with Maria Callas: from almost attending the soprano's master classes to screen- testing for a Hollywood biopic. This week, the actress-singer is bringing her to life on stage, without singing a note. By Edward Seckerson
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The Independent Culture
Sixteen years ago, Patti LuPone flew to Los Angeles to test for a movie based on Arianna Stassinopoulos's biography of Maria Callas. Call it premonition, call it advance notice, if you like, but someone had glimpsed the future. Looking now at the photograph currently displayed all over London on posters announcing Terrence McNally's smash hit Broadway play Master Class, you see what someone saw. Callas. In profile. Proud, intense, dangerous. A graven image in operatic terms. You see her, you hear her. You hear her, you know her. And you wonder what kept her.

Patti LuPone will tell you that she believes in destiny, in the pre-ordained, that she and La Divina had a date from the start. Right now they're pretty inseparable. It's called playing it by the method rule-book. LuPone speaks for Callas, through Callas, just as Callas would speak through "the voice" (which is how she always referred to it - in the third person). And so, Maria said this, Maria believed that, Maria would never have countenanced such an idea. Maria is close by. There are definitely three of us in this interview. LuPone speaks a lot about "honouring" Callas. She's fiercely defensive about her integrity, her subordination to "the voice", the craft, the career. No, she was not selfish. She railed against selfish performers. She was selfish only for the composer... "She comprehended, realised, every note, every trill, every inflection... `It's all in the music,' she would say to her students. Come in pure, truthful..."

The La Divina Collection plays constantly in LuPone's dressing-room at the Queen's Theatre. While her colleagues vocalise, she listens, digests. She has come to know all the nuances, and the reasons for them, she has come to share in the risk, the recklessness, the sing-all, give-all nature of Callas's art, she has come to feel the distress of a damaged voice in her own voice.

LuPone knows about reckless, she knows about damage. She knows about laying herself on the line. She's had a hard time of it from some American critics who wish she wouldn't. Turn down the heat, turn down the volume, just turn it all down, they cry. But it's in the blood. Mediterranean blood, Mediterranean temperament. She's never known any different. She'd arrive hoarse for her singing lessons at the Juilliard School in New York City - the side-effect of too many cigarettes and show-tunes. Well, this was Juilliard preparatory, and she was a teenager.

Someone had seen and heard her potential. The voice was certainly there. For a time it was thought to be an operatic voice (remember we're talking here of the great-grand-niece and namesake of the celebrated lyric coloratura, Adelina Patti, sometime queen of Covent Garden). But opera didn't attract her. Childhood experiences at the old Met had left an indelible impression. She remembers Samson and Delilah. Or rather, she remembers two very fat singers and a large bowl of fruit. Her body was better suited to song and dance. So on the day of her classical audition at Juilliard (she doesn't remember what she sang, but she remembers someone on the panel filing their nails), she got on a plane to LA to audition for the Melody Tent. You can imagine what kind of shows they put on.

Eventually, it was the Drama Division at Juilliard that claimed her. She started her career as a founding member of John Houseman's The Acting Company. And when the emotional stakes were so high that she could no longer speak - isn't that the definition of musical theatre? - she sang. And the voice was a scorcher. A ready-to-go Reno Sweeney (the feisty Cole Porter heroine for whom "Anything Goes"), an Evita in waiting. And if Norma Desmond should ever sing... Perhaps it's better we stay silent on that one. She does.

LuPone is now roughly the same age that Callas was when she conducted her now legendary master classes at Juilliard. And before you ask, yes, she was there then, and no, she didn't go. The guilt is still with her. She's heard the tapes, seen the videos, and is now living the play. And, in living the play, she is reminded, she says, of a dedication and a sacrifice and a commitment that is rarely encountered today. Unless you happen to be preparing McNally's Master Class. It's a marathon. It took her seven and a half weeks just simply getting the words down. Then came the voice work, the accent, the Italian. The research. Master Class is the work of - to quote the Independent's Paul Taylor - "a fully paid-up Callas freak who once put two fully paid-up Callas freaks centre- stage in his play The Lisbon Traviata". It will be interesting to see how fully paid- up Callas freaks on this side of the Atlantic will respond to the dramatic licence, the "deliberate mistakes". And there are one or two. Doesn't every self-respecting opera queen know that E-flat and not F is the commonest high note interpolation for big finishes in the Italian repertoire? Even if it does snag the rhythm of McNally's text.

No matter, the play's the thing, and McNally's play - like the great tragic heroine it celebrates - is nothing if not operatic. Meaning fanciful, extravagant, theatre before it is documentary. The master class to end all master classes. And we've seen a few.

What a curious, oddly voyeuristic, spectator sport this is. Singing legends as exhibits, "on-stage" and yet not on-stage, performing and yet not performing. Some treating the occasion as some kind of "stand-up" routine. Like the celebrated baritone (and I have this one on good authority) who, before going out on-stage, asked the young tenor if he could be sure that the problematic B-flat was a problem so that he had something to work with, so that he - in other words - could make a drama out of the crisis. I also have this indelible image of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf quelling the rapturous applause of a large audience with an imperious wave of her hand: "Please, you must understand, we are here to work. This is not about me..." But, of course, it was about her. Just as Master Class is about Maria Callas. And while we're on the subject of these monstres sacres, did you hear the one about the world premiere of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at the Venice Festival in 1951. Schwarzkopf was on-stage, Callas in the audience. At intermission, everyone was talking about the diva's spectacular top C at the close of Anne Trulove's big aria. Cut to post-performance in a nearby restaurant, and enter Callas, full of praise for Schwarzkopf's performance, not least that fabulous C. Such a quality note: how did she do it? Not wishing for a moment that anyone should think it was a one- off, a fluke, Schwarzkopf did it again, and again, while Callas laid hands on her as if she were some freak of nature. Who knows what the subtext of that one was...

The subtext of McNally's play is the elusiveness of great artistry, and what it costs in human terms. It's that aspect of the play which consumes LuPone nightly. She doesn't find anything about the play negative. "It's the tragedy of Callas's life that is negative." In that, she is markedly different from Zoe Caldwell, who first played the role on Broadway - "wildly different", according to the director, Leonard Foglia. There's a line in the play where she, Callas, announces that what she possesses is "something that can't be taught or passed on or copied or even talked about". Caldwell played the edge, the cynicism of the line. She was grand, she was patronising. LuPone aims to play the toughness but not the condescension. "She drives the students hard, of course she does. That's all she knows... I remember being told by John Cassavetes as an actor: `Stop being so professional; be an amateur, let yourself go, make mistakes.' And that's basically what she is saying to the second-act soprano - the one who walks out on her. She's saying, `Who are you saving yourself for?' And immediately, of course, you're reminded of the damage to her own voice. Later, she realises that this singer simply doesn't have the inspiration for a role like Verdi's Lady Macbeth. And tells her so. And that is cruel. But it's also the hard truth, for Callas the only truth... a quality she recognises immediately. Like when the young tenor sings `Recondita armonia' from Tosca..."

That's an interesting scene. For the first time in this master class, Callas does not interrupt. She is transported. But Zoe Caldwell suggested that she had not heard a single note, rather that she was simply preoccupied with her own thoughts, her own reminiscences. "No, I don't see it that way. She's reawakened. This is the first time that someone in the class has really opened up to her. And it's like a flirtation - this young Cavaradossi, whose only thoughts are for her: `Il mio solo pensiero, Tosca sei tu!' And maybe because I'm that much younger than Zoe, and because I have access to music, I can convey a different feeling. It isn't over for me yet. And yet some things are receding. It's like Callas sees in this moment what was and what might be no more. And that's very moving. I hope."

So how does it feel: a singer among singers and not a note to sing? "It's a cakewalk - it really is. Hey, I can go on stage hoarse, I can go on stage with a cold - and I can use it! Strangely enough, though, there's actually more, not less, stress on those two tiny muscles. There's a lot of attack and anger in this role - some of it very abrupt. Now, when you sing, you remember to breathe, you remember to place. When you're acting, it's not exactly exciting to remember all that stuff, is it . . ?"

And this lady does so like to be exciting, and yes, reckless, and yes, high on the emotion of the moment. McNally, she says, has written arias - not speeches, "arias" - and with the sound of La Divina herself interwoven through their fabric, it's as if she, Patti LuPone, is singing. It's been 12 years since she was last in a "straight" play. People want the voice, people want the musicals, "and they haven't always been fun", she adds pointedly. Still, if she ever does get this little problem called Maria out of her system, then London's bracing itself for that one-woman show of hers.

Opens tomorrow, Queen's Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (0171- 494 5590)

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