It’s no surprise that LA DIVINA won the 2021 Orlando Fringe Critic’s Choice Award for Best Individual Performance in a Drama. Currently a Hollywood Fringe Festival selection, LA DIVINA has moved across the country to give Los Angeles audiences the same moving musical experience. Written, produced, and performed by the very talented Shelley Cooper, the life and loves of Maria Callas come to vibrant life. Maria Callas has been described as one of the most celebrated and influential opera singers of the twentieth century – a woman for whom the sobriquet “La Divina” seems nearly perfect. Formatted as an interview, the production lets Shelley take the audience on a journey through Callas’ life while answering questions posed by an invisible examiner.
Born in New York City to poor Greek immigrant parents, Maria was the underdog in her family – a chubby, socially awkward, largely ignored youngster with one redeeming gift: a voice to charm the nightingales. When she was 13 years old, her mother finally recognized Maria’s special talents and relocated her to Athens for a formal musical education, even if it meant convincing everyone that Maria was several years older so that she could qualify for a scholarship. And so Maria, her sister, and her mother spent World War II in Greece in the thick of war. Thank goodness for lonely Italian soldiers craving music above all else, music powerful enough to remind them of home. As an added benefit, their donations of food and drink probably kept the Callas family going in wartime.
Maria’s early operatic roles were, sad to say, determined by her weight. But then this determined songbird decided to shed some of the blubber and lost 60 pounds in a year. She suddenly looked and felt the part of the slender, sexy opera heroines with the best roles and the choicest arias. Marriage and love (in that order) eventually caught up with Maria when love at first sight struck both “La Divina” and Aristotle Onassis – while her husband looked on.
Creatively and cleverly, Shelley Cooper lets the audience in on some of the undercover secrets in Maria’s life, as well as some of the events which shaped her professionally and personally. All the while, this on-stage prima donna weaves in several operatic gems like “O Mio Babbino Caro,” “Habanera,” and “Vissi d’arte.” Shelley is a lady with a clear and magnificently controlled soprano voice which does honor to the memory of Callas.
LA DIVINA lives up to its name, and then some. Shelley Cooper is a true professional with expertise in hitting the high notes, eking out every emotion that exists between the lines, and getting into Maria’s head. Director Mariangela Chatzistamatiou does an excellent job of balancing song and dialog, events personal and professional, and fascinating tidbits in Callas’ tumultuous life. Needless to say, LA DIVINA will enchant every opera lover. But an added benefit is a fascinating true tale of an operatic icon. You may not enter the theater loving opera, but you will definitely see things differently when you leave.
LA DIVINA: THE LAST INTERVIEW OF MARIA CALLAS runs through 8/22/21, with performances at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, 8/7/21, on Friday, 8/13/21, on Thursday, 8/19/21, and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, 8/22/21. The Hudson Guild Theatre is located at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038. Tickets are $10. For information and reservations, go online.