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Bringing Maria Callas to life

Tough and strong: Kathryn Kates as Maria Callas, the opera singer, in US playwright Terrence McNally’s Master Class (Photograph supplied)

Kathryn Kates closes the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts next week, playing opera singer Maria Callas in American playwright Terrence McNally’s Master Class. A founding member of The Colony — an award-winning theatre group recognised as one of America’s 25 most notable — with recurring roles on Seinfeld and Orange is the New Black, she calls Callas her “most difficult, challenging role” to date.

Q: How have you seen opportunities for female actors develop? Would female actors of your mother’s era had the opportunity to take a leading role in something like The Colony?

A: Opportunities for female actors have changed radically, especially since I was a young woman. In the 1970s and 1980s, television was filled with harlie’s Angels and Love Boat.

American movies were usually very flashy, not deep, dark dramas. Female actors were largely glamorous, blonde and beautiful — or cute and perky, the girl next door. The big thing they looked for in commercials was “boring, blonde mommy”.

There were few character roles. I remember being in a casting office and, right in front of me, the casting director and director said, “Oh, she’s terrific ... but what are we going to do with her?”

A young character actress like me had few opportunities in television. Since I am not a trained singer, my theatre roles were limited as well.

What set The Colony theatre apart was that, in the early days, we were a small company and tried to use everyone. We did large cast shows and managed to get most of our actors on stage at least once a year. Some, like John Larroquette who was an original company member, played leads in many of our shows. We were an unusual group.

Ray Bradbury was close friends with our artistic director Terrence Shank, and he gave us original scripts to The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and we made a musical of Dandelion Wine. It was a very special time, those early years. We became quite well known very quickly. For most of us, it was an extraordinary time in our professional lives.

Q: In the word’s negative sense, is “diva” a fair description of Maria Callas? Do you think if she’d been a man she would have been criticised for her behaviour?

A: Ah, yes, I do think Madame Callas qualifies as a diva. She was tough and strong and expected perfection from herself and everyone around her. Truthfully, I don’t think she could have been a man; she was completely feminine, used all her assets to her advantage.

I don’t believe calling her a diva is a negative term. She simply was “La Divina”, a creation of her own that became her life. Underneath that? Who knows. I hope to bring some of her hidden self to the stage so you might see flashes of a real woman up there, not just Callas.

Q: Best part about this role?

A: The absolutely most difficult, challenging role I have ever attempted. It is also the absolute shortest rehearsal period I have ever had. The best part? I have a director who understands the role, the play, and who understands me. We are on the same wavelength about almost everything. Without Albert Cremin I would not be able to do this, period.

Q: Beauty of the stage versus the screen for you?

A: Most actors will tell you the same thing — the stage is alive, immediate, happening in the moment, dangerous and thrilling. Film and television can be fine, and it is lovely to be paid well. But theatre? Nothing, nothing else comes close.

Q: Seinfeld, Orange is the New Black, why do you think both struck a chord with viewers?

A: Seinfeld spoke to people in a language they understood. It was so easy to relate to the situations because it was stuff that happens to all of us all the time. And they had two geniuses at the helm.

It was the only television show I ever worked on where producers and directors did not touch what we were doing — it was Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David alone. They did it all — wrote scripts, rewrote on the spot, fixed things.

The directors would come in for camera work but the real work was created by just the two of them. Orange is the New Black has genius writers and that show gives a voice to characters we have never really seen before — the disenfranchised, the lower level of society, woman we have rarely understood — and makes them heroic and easy to relate to.

As described by the Bermuda Festival: Master Class portrays opera diva Maria Callas as the glamorous, commanding, larger-than-life, caustic and surprisingly funny pedagogue, holding a singing master class for students.

Alternately dismayed and impressed by the students who parade before her, she retreats into recollections about the glories of her own life and career.

Included in her musings are her younger years as an ugly duckling, her fierce hatred of her rivals, the unforgiving press that savaged her early performances, her triumphs at La Scala and her relationship with Aristotle Onassis. It culminates in a monologue about sacrifice taken in the name of art.

• Master Class runs March 8 and 9 at 7.30pm at City Hall. Tickets, $80, are available at ptix.bermudafestival.org