By Leia Squillace
Maria Callas, the famed Greek opera singer and fodder for the tabloids, should be compelling source material for a biopic solo show. In Paola Hadjilambri’s production of “La Callas,” however, the soprano’s achievements and prima donna personality feel reduced to a catalogue of her associations with those more and less remarkable than her.
After a seemingly unconnected opening scene in which La Callas, as Maria is known, curtly answers a phone call and abruptly ends it, she reenters in full regality. Callas informs her audience, whom she understands to be the press, that she has time to take a selection of preapproved questions. These have been handed out in numbered red envelopes upon entry. The audience immediately becomes her scene partner in a rather predictable question‑and‑answer session.
The interview structure of the performance was not exactly unengaging, but the lack of context and setting deprived both the performer and audience of any dramatic tension. Often, answers reflected the type of content one might expect from a historian, rather than an individual actively recalling or explaining moments of their life.
Redeemably, Ms. Hadjilambri’s connection to Callas is visible and resounds through her portrayal. Her styling ‑ precise and thick wing‑tipped eyes and perfectly coiffed black hair ‑ combined with her posture in two upholstered oval‑back chairs conjured the spirit of Callas. In dramatic rather than expository scenes, her eyes looked into another world, and helped to bring her audience along with her. These moments mostly concerned her tumultuous romance with Aristotle Onassis, known for marrying the widowed Jackie Kennedy. Onassis and Callas revolved around each other for some time before beginning an affair, divorcing their respective spouses, and moving in together.
The play hits its most gripping stride as Callas shares the saga of her desire to give Onassis a son, in addition to (or in competition with) the two children he had from his previous marriage. Given her strained relationship with her own mother, it is not difficult to buy into the idea that Maria’s intention for getting pregnant is precisely what she claims: not so much to become a mother herself, as to bind herself to Onassis. Her obsession with him is remarkable; she decides to have her baby by cesarean section in her eighth month of pregnancy because she felt “insecure about being fat” around him.
The tragic consequences of her decision, while momentarily shocking, do not feel all that surprising. The play’s curation of Callas’s life tells the story of a woman constantly contorting herself for the love of a man known for having a string of mistresses. Callas believes herself to be the one love of his life who can endure his caprices, even through his marriage to Jackie O. This belief is not completely unfounded, as we learn near the end of the play that the phone call from the initial scene was Onassis himself pleading Maria to make an appearance at his wedding, thereby sabotaging it.
Inexplicably, in the final moments, time jumps and Callas reveals that this very day marks the official conclusion of the mourning period for Aristotle Onassis, who passed with her by his side. As the lights dim, she blows him a kiss and makes her final goodbye. By bookending with these two Onassis‑centered moments, the play confirms suspicion that it is, in fact, a love letter to him, rather than a depiction of the life and career of Maria Callas.
Written and Performed by Paola Hadjilambri
Directed by Austin Pendleton
November 8 at 7:30 PM
Photo credit: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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LEIA SQUILLACE is a director, devised theatre artist, and arts engagement administrator. Leia has developed new plays such as “GOOD KIDS” (Naomi Iizuka), “THE TRAIN” (Irene L. Pynn), and the Kennedy Center National Undergraduate Playwriting Award winner, “FAIR” (Karly Thomas). Most recently, Leia co‑developed a one‑woman show, “I KILLED THE COW,” which is currently touring nationally.