Blog Take a “Master Class” from one of the greatest opera divas

Take a “Master Class” from one of the greatest opera divas

By Cathalena Burch. Originally Published by the Arizona Daily Star.

One of the greatest opera divas is holding a master class and [Arizona audiences are] invited to sit in.

But in Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play “Master Class,” Maria Callas doesn’t sing.

She talks.

Which is a good thing for the star of Arizona Theatre Company’s production. 

Vicki Lewis can sing, but opera is a bit out of her range.

In “Master Class,” Lewis spends most of her time on stage talking, which the director, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, said is more taxing than singing.

“It’s different than carrying a musical and singing all the big numbers,” the director said. “It’s a different use of voice and craft for so much text, delivering so many words.”

In “Master Class,” set at Juilliard in the early 1970s, Callas is long past her operatic prime and is now teaching young voice students how to become opera performers, from singing to acting. McNally, inspired by a master class he attended at Juilliard when he was teaching there in the 1980s, included long stream of conscience passages that sometimes make it hard to connect the dots. The challenge for the actress playing Callas is to connect her experiences for the students in the class. 

“It has to feel very off-the-cuff and spontaneous,” said Dodge, who is returning to ATC 30 years after her one and only Arizona production, 1994’s “Some Enchanted Evening: The Songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein.” 

Lewis’s Callas does that in part by speaking directly to the audience, as if they were part of the class. 

“The audience is in a conversation with Callas,” said Lewis, who said she was excited “to get my hands on this and get in the room and work this part of my craft.”

“I think that they will feel like Maria has talked to them directly because of the way that Vicki utilizes them in helping her journey through this story,” Dodge said. “There are moments when she looks in the audience and calls somebody out and they are going to be there. Someone will be in that scene with Vicki as Maria and will get some of her wisdom or some of her taunting.”

Lewis, making her Arizona debut, is probably best known for her work in television, starring in the late 1990s NBC sitcom “NewsRadio” and her recurring roles on “How I Met Your Mother,” “Modern Family,” “Home Improvement,” “Seinfeld” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

She also voiced the roles of Deb and Flo in the Disney Pixar animated films “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory.”

But her first love is theater, which launched her acting career before she moved to Hollywood. In 2018, she found herself back on the stage when she was cast as Countess Lilly in “Anastasia” on Broadway, an opportunity that she said “just fell out of the sky.”

“I have had the best last years just being able to say yes to the theater world that makes me so darn happy,” said the 63-year-old.

Dodge has played a big role in Lewis’s second half career. The pair, whose relationship goes back more than 30 years, has worked together on a number of stage productions going back to 1991’s “Book of Night” at Chicago’s Goodman’s Theatre; Lewis was in the ensemble cast and Dodge was the choreographer.

They have since done “Gypsy” twice, “Hello Dolly,” “Anything Goes,” “Young Frankenstein” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

“We have a very symbiotic working relationship. We kind of share a brain when it comes to that. We’re really, I think, great collaborators so we always have a great time,” Lewis said.

Lewis said she read a lot about Callas and listened to her recordings to prepare for the role.  

“What I’ve learned about her life, which was really difficult, very heart-breaking, tragic, was that there were great highs, but a lot of it was tormented pretty much,” Lewis said. “Her heart was broken; she was treated badly in her childhood. There was great sorrows in her life. I am trying to tap into all of that.”

“I think it’s a thrilling play,” she added.