In a role of a lifetime, Australian actress Maria Mercedes will portray the famous soprano in Terrence McNally’s award-winning play.

Maria Mercedes is no stranger to the Australian stage. She performed Norma Desmond in the original production of Sunset Boulevard, Luisa Contini in Nine, and most recently, Madame Giry in Love Never Dies. Considering her impressive career, it’s a wonder why Mercedes resumed the role of student at a master class held earlier this year.

The master class, which was instructed by Elizabeth Kemp of the esteemed Actors Studio in New York, required participants to devise and present a character-based performance. Mercedes chose soprano Maria Callas, and received overwhelming praise for her portrayal. Fast-forward several months, and Mercedes has been asked to play Callas again, this time in Terrence McNally’s Master Class.

“It was almost a life-changing experience working with Elizabeth Kemp and to really delve so deeply into Maria’s shadows, and my own shadows as a human being,” said Mercedes. “What came out of it was an extreme understanding, but also a deep respect for Maria and what she had achieved in her time. At the end of it, Elizabeth Kemp said to me ‘you must do Master Class’.”

Master Class is based on the series of lessons delivered by Callas at the Juilliard School of Music, and is both an analysis of musical pedagogy as well as Callas’ supposedly caustic personality. Since its Broadway premiere in 1995, the play has garnered as many accolades as it has criticism – just like the woman herself. In fact, during its 2011 revival, the fearsome Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote, “Master Class is not, by even a generous reckoning, a very good play, though it can be an entertaining one”. Mercedes, however, takes a very different view.

“It’s a fantastic piece, and is really the vehicle that Terrence [McNally] uses to display the love that Maria had for opera,” she said. “So, during the course of this class, we get to see into her deeper self, and we get to understand her complexities and the sacrifices that she made, and what she faced from her critics, her colleagues, and also her relationships. It’s quite heartbreaking what she went through.”

Callas’ life is extraordinarily heartbreaking, with equal parts success, struggle and controversy. She is recognised as one of the most influential musical icons of the twentieth century, but her immense vocal talent was often overshadowed by a much-publicised temper, mid-career weight loss, love affairs, and eventual vocal decline. Despite all of this, Mercedes believes that Callas showed great fallibility, and hopes that the audience perceives as much from her own performance.

“Whether they love her or hate her, what I’d like people to come away with is an understanding of the humanity that Maria had,” she said. “But also, her passion for the arts, how uncompromising she was, how hard she worked, and how much she sacrificed and gave of herself.”

An impressive group of actresses have already portrayed Callas in Master Class – including Australian Zoe Caldwell (who originated the role on Broadway), Patti LuPone and Tyne Daly. Even Meryl Streep will try her hand at the role, in the upcoming film adaptation by HBO. But, Mercedes remains undaunted ahead of her own performance.

“There has been an incredible legacy of actresses to play Maria – there’s no way I’m going to compare myself to someone of that elk. I’m not going to try to impersonate them, I’m just going to embody her and bring some of her spirit to life,” said Mercedes. “But, none of them have been of Greek descent. I think if you are of the same nationality, you’re privy to a psychology of that ethnic background that others aren’t.”

Mercedes has far more in common with Callas than just her cultural background and name (which coincidentally, they both changed to appease Western expectations). They both began school aged seven and discovered their voice soon afterwards, their fathers share the same name too, and their parents were from the same area in Greece. It’s a bizarre instance of life imitating art, and a dream role that Mercedes can finally cross off the bucket list. “I may have done a lot of work in my time, but I can count the great roles on one hand,” she said. “Luisa Contini in Nine, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Maria Callas in Master Class.”

Left Bauer Productions presents Master Class at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne from August 19-28. More information and tickets here.

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