Looking behind the scenes of “La Divina”

Abigail Larson

“La Davina: The Last Interview of Maria Callas” is a one-woman show, written and performed by Shelley Cooper, Assistant Professor of Theater Arts at Augustana. The play details the life of Maria Callas, a renowned 20th-century opera singer through an interview-style show with performances of Callas’ most well-known arias throughout the piece.
While most recently done in the Quad Cities at The Black Box Theatre on March 26 through 28, Cooper has been performing the show at various locations for the past eleven years. 
The show was first performed at the Orlando Repertory Theatre Black Box Space on October 29 and 30, 2010, and was created by Cooper for her Master’s thesis at the University of Central Florida.
However, the original catalyst for her piece, Cooper mentioned, came from rejection.
With the University of Central Florida planning the performance of “The Pirates of Penzance,” many people had assured Cooper of the likelihood of her receiving the part of Mabel Stanley. So, Cooper prepared to write her thesis on playing that role and the evolution of the ingenue in musical theatre and operetta. 
Not long after though, Cooper realized the lack of passion held for such a project.
“I auditioned for “Pirates of Penzance” and I guess the director could sense it, cause I went in for auditions…and I didn’t get it,” Cooper said.
After she realized she needed new ideas for her thesis, Cooper turned to a previous interview with a theater company. 
While being interviewed, the company asked Cooper what the scariest thing for her to do in the theater would be. For Cooper, the answer was writing and performing her own show.
This idea, merged with her previous admiration for Maria Callas, led to an obvious union. 
“She was always my role model for singing and acting, because she is one of the greatest 20th-century opera singers, and not just because of her vocal ability but because of her storytelling,” Cooper said.
Cooper had been introduced in-depth to Maria Callas through the production of “Masterclass” during her senior year at Hanover College, and while she enjoyed the performance she felt it touched on only one aspect of Callas’ personality.
To find Callas’ true voice, Cooper did extensive research, which included reading biographies and watching interviews.
The interviews, Cooper noted, allowed her good insight into phrases she would say and the cadence of Callas’ speaking, an essential part of her portrayal.
Because of Callas’ unique dialect, Cooper does an extensive amount of vocal warm-ups before the show, in addition to her physical warm-ups. To get Callas’ mannerisms right too, Cooper now watches the documentary “Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words” five or six times throughout the rehearsal process, which features real footage of Callas speaking and acting.
While taking on a challenge like this used to be Cooper’s biggest fear, she has grown to love it.
She notes that when acting on-stage alone, one is never truly alone. In Cooper’s case, there accompanist on stage with her while she performs, and those helping with the technical side of the performance are present as well.
In addition to those helping with the show, the audience is involved in the process as well.
“A lot of it is audience dependent too,” Cooper said. “You don’t ever want it to be so overly-rehearsed that you’re not reading the room and reading what the audience is doing that day.
For anyone considering taking on a solo performance, Cooper stresses the need for confidence.
“It takes a lot of confidence. You cannot second guess yourself for a minute,” Cooper said. “You got to have that utmost confidence because you’ve got no one out there boosting your confidence for you.”