Preview of Maria: The Life and Loves of Maria Callas

Joy Davidson as Maria Callas

In Classical Singer Magazine, October 2009
By Greg Waxberg

A “missionary zeal” is bringing mezzo-soprano Joy Davidson back to the stage—but not the operatic stage. Now that she is retired from an international 30-year career, Davidson is portraying Maria Callas in a new one-woman play, MARIA: The Life and Loves of Maria Callas.

The production is based on The Autobiography of Maria Callas: A Novel by Alma H. Bond, Ph. D. (alma_bond.tripod.com), the author of 15 published books. Bill Taylor, producing artistic director of Theatre Conspiracy in Fort Myers, Florida, acted as dramaturg and director. There have already been readings for students and the Dramatists Guild in New York City, and the official premiere of the newest version of MARIA is scheduled for February 11 and 12, 2009, at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, Naples, Florida, with Taylor directing and designing the set.

Davidson previously appeared as Callas in Master Class, the Tony Award-winning play by Terrence McNally. The director of Master Class felt that, as an opera singer, Davidson would bring special insight to the role, especially because she had sung on many of the same stages that are mentioned in the play. While preparing for the McNally play she found Dr. Bond’s book and was impressed. “The sensitivity with which she addressed Callas was very apparent and I appreciated that approach,” Davidson says.

Dr. Bond, although not a musician, is a psychoanalyst who always enjoyed spending time with artistic patients and is deeply interested in Callas as a creative woman. “As a biographer, I choose the most creative women I can find to write about. When I retired after 37 years from my full-time practice to write full-time, I thought, ‘now is the time to get to know Callas,’” she says.

Thank God tonight's performance is over!

And get to know her she did. Dr. Bond bought three tapes of Callas’ arias and played them to the point of wearing them out. She read every book and almost every newspaper and magazine article written about her, including books by Callas’ mother, sister, husband and friends. She interviewed people who knew Callas, such as the late opera critic John Ardoin.

“Most important of all, I listened to every one of her CDs I could find until I got to know them by heart. I looked carefully into them for nuances into her character and personality, such as ‘why is that note sung so poignantly, when other artists practically ignore it?’ and learned from her singing when she was truly in love,” Dr. Bond says. She studied Callas’ ability to soar above an orchestra in the same music that proved difficult for other singers.

All of the facts in the book are historically accurate, but A Novel in the title refers to Dr. Bond’s fictitious interpretation of those facts. “For example, the facts are that she had a mother, a father and a sister. From my research, it was up to me to decide from the fragments of her life we are given what their real relationships were,” Dr. Bond says. She became so enraptured with writing about Callas that she turned the book into a play.

A six-member cast was involved when the first version of the play was presented in New York, with Davidson in the title role. Six years later, Dr. Bond asked if she would perform it again, but Davidson felt that MARIA could be more effective as a one-woman play for practical reasons: the responsibility of educating the audience would rest with her and the play would reach more people with the simplicity of a one-person show.

Joy asked Dr. Bond to re-write it, and Dr. Bond was happy to oblige. However, for the Dramatists Guild in New York, the script had to be trimmed to about 50 minutes, so Dr. Bond gave Davidson permission to find an editor in Southwest Florida.

Davidson contacted Taylor; she had read online about his company Theatre Conspiracy, which has produced more than 30 world premiere plays through an annual new play contest for more than 10 years. “It fit perfectly into my schedule and I loved the subject, so I accepted. It was a process of picking the most critical things that influenced Callas’ life: the relationship with her mother, the guidance of [Tullio] Serafin, her marriage and, of course, Ari Onassis,” Taylor says.

Bill Taylor & Joy Davidson at Kravis Rinker

As he progressed, he sent each version to Dr. Bond and changed anything she did not like. “He kept working on it until I was satisfied. He said he wouldn’t put on anything that I disagreed with,” Dr. Bond says.

Davidson now advertises the play as 53 minutes because Callas died at 53 in 1977, and she wants to keep it at 53 minutes because that leaves time for a question-and-answer session, very important to audiences that include opera lovers who remember Callas’ performances, as well as for young artists who may just be learning about “La Divina.” The main concern with the shortened version is maintaining the integrity of the novel and original play. “The bottom line is that I must, as Callas, feel the veracity of what I say,” Davidson says.

Her passion for performing Callas is palpable. “This play has called to me largely because I realize the passionate interest in Callas that remains some 30 years since her death and [I realize] that the younger generation is not as connected. The impact that she had on [the younger] generation—on all of us—is incredible because it was this lady who brought theatrical reality to the operatic stage.”

Myra Daniels, CEO, Philharmonic Center for The Arts, Naples, Florida

Davidson brought the show to the attention of Callas enthusiast Myra Janco Daniels, founder and CEO of the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, which presents opera. “She read it for me,” Daniels says, “and it was so moving and powerful that she brought tears to my eyes.”

One might wonder how MARIA: The Life and Loves of Maria Callas differs from Master Class. McNally’s play depicts Callas in a professional setting, instructing three Juilliard students at master classes with an accompanist, and the show is longer.

“I think Master Class is a wonderful play” Davidson says, “and I love doing the play, but I believe that MARIA addresses Callas more as a woman, and more as a very vulnerable woman, as well as celebrates her great artistry. The play deals with the gripping reality that she will not sing again.”

MARIA is set in Callas’ dressing room in Sapporo, Japan, following her last concert on November 11, 1974; the play begins with Callas leaving the stage and once she is in the security of her dressing room, she recounts her family relationships, such as her mother’s exploitation of her voice at a young age, which prevented Callas from having a normal childhood.

Davidson’s costume is a replica of the dress that Callas wore that night, and she demands a simple set no matter where she performs the play. “The only requirement I have is that we have a bouquet of two dozen roses. She loved roses, and she uses those roses in almost a childlike way as she talks about her relationship with Onassis. I want to keep this simple so that, in touring the show, it is appropriate for any intimate space,” she says. Of course if a make-up table can be provided, that is a luxury.

She wants to educate young people about Callas’ impact on opera. “This woman…changed the standard by which all other opera singers are judged,” Davidson says. For her, opera changed when Callas brought intense drama to an art form that was known for the “stand-and-sing” approach, and her generation benefited from this new intensity of dramatic reality. In addition to the educational aspects, this one-woman tour-de-force gives audiences who may lived during the decades Callas ruled as prima donna of the operatic world, a nostalgic look at “La Divina”.

“In any profession, it’s very important that we connect with our history. Young singers need to learn the traditions and the nuances, and what singers have done in the past, and how music is treated,” Davidson says.

Davidson highlights two other connections she feels with Callas: the operatic connection of having performed for 30 years on the same stages where Callas sang, and motherhood. While Callas desperately wanted a child, Davidson has five children. “Personally, I feel the incredible blessing of having both a career and a family. When I am embodying Callas, I feel her agony of having been denied a family,” she says.

Davidson sang with The Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, La Scala, New York City Opera, Madrid and Barcelona Operas, San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, among other companies. Her signature role was Carmen, which she performed more than 300 times, and she also was known for Adalgisa in Norma, Azucena in Il Trovatore, Amneris in Aida, Charlotte in Werther, Dalila in Samson et Dalila and leading roles in operas by Menotti. Orchestras in Boston, Los Angeles and New York welcomed her as a soloist in Mahler, Stravinsky, Ravel and Beethoven.

She began teaching in the department of vocal/opera studies at New World School of the Arts in 1989 and taught there full-time after she retired from singing in 1995. Her courses included voice, lyric diction, sacred and symphonic vocal literature, vocal pedagogy and opera history. She is now professor emeritus.

MARIA: The Life and Loves of Maria Callas is appropriate for all ages. For more information about upcoming performances, Davidson can be contacted at joy@joydavidsonpresents.com The website is www.joydavidsonpresents.com.

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About Joy Davidson

Joy Davidson, mezzo-soprano, began her career with a professional debut in Rossini’s Cenerentola with Greater Miami Opera and went on to sing 45 roles throughout Europe and North America. Since her retirement from the operatic and concert stage, Joy has returned to the theatre with performances as Maria Callas in MASTER CLASS (Terrance McNally) and two one woman dramas: MARIA: The Life and Loves of Maria Callas (Alma H. Bond) and ALICE: An Evening with the Tart-Tongued Alice Roosevelt Longworth (Kitty Felde). Recent performances of these plays have been at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, Naples, Florida, the Kravis/Rinker Center for the Arts, West Palm Beach, FL and Colorado State University in conjunction with Opera Fort Collins. ALICE sold out 5 performances at the Capital Fringe Festival, Washington D.C. July, 2011. Miss Davidson garnered rave reviews for her performance as the NURSE in MEDEA (Euripedes/Jeffers) for Theatre Conspiracy in March 2011. The Philharmonic Center for the Arts presented Miss Davidson in another one-woman tour de force, TEA AT FIVE (Matthew Lombardo), which captures the fiery spirit of Katharine Hepburn, March 11, 12, 2012.