Versatility may be a cumbersome middle name, but it is one completely appropriate for the multi-talented Patti LuPone. In less than a year, the Tony and Olivier Award-winning actress has starred on Broadway in her own one-woman show, appeared in the television movie "Her Last Chance," guest-starred on NBC's "Law & Order" and AMC's "Remember WENN," traveled to Southeast Asia; and, oh yes, she now stars in the Tony-winning dramatic play of the season, Terrence McNally's Master Class.
A week before she was set to begin rehearsals for the monumental role of opera diva Maria Callas, LuPone spoke frankly and amusingly about the challenges of the role, which examines both Callas the artist and Callas the woman and the pressures of replacing four-time Tony winner Zoe Caldwell.
LuPone caught Caldwell's performance this past fall and "was so moved by Zoe's performance and Terrence's words [that I] questioned my right to be onstage. Of course, I was going to perform [that evening in Patti LuPone on Broadway], but it was the way I felt when I saw Machinal in London with Fiona Shaw - a masterful performance." It was LuPone's insightful reflection on Terrence McNally's words that would propel her to accept the Callas role, words that expressed "a theatre of discipline [where] the actor serves the playwright, the singer serves the composer. It's less about self importance and more about the message that the playwright has written, the director has conceptualized and the actor delivers to an audience." And, she adds with her infectious laugh, "I thought, 'I'm an idiot not to do it!'"
Like Callas, LuPone possesses a vocal style all her own, a from-the-guts delivery that had audiences deliriously happy during her aforementioned concert run at the Walter Kerr Theatre earlier in the season; even critics like USA Today's David Patrick Stearns raved: "LuPone is emotionally present in every vignette, which even Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland were hard pressed to accomplish in concert." LuPone firmly expresses that she "wouldn't be so presumptuous to compare myself at all to Maria Callas" but admitted, "when you listen to Maria Callas sing, she sacrifices a beautiful sound for an emotional truth, and I think that without having had her as a mentor, it's something that I instinctively do."
Master Class is set in a Manhattan classroom during one of the infamous sessions where Maria Callas coached aspiring opera singers from Juilliard. Although McNally and LuPone toyed with the idea of letting her sing onstage, they decided that to do so would undermine the intensity of the work. "As Terrence has structured this play," LuPone explains, "the moment [Callas] sings is a very dramatic moment, and you hear a broken voice. To reveal anything before that is going to disrupt the moment." LuPone also adds that the moment is not about singing: "It's about what Maria Callas believed was singing, which was acting a role."
Whether it's acting or singing, Patti LuPone is a passionate artist, one who seeks challenges and takes risks in all her work. When she discusses the art of acting, her enthusiasm is evident, and it builds when she imagines the possibilities that were open to la Divina, Maria Callas: "Think about being in your mid-twenties to your mid- thirties, being the queen of the greatest opera house in the world, working with one of the most innovative film directors, who's now directing you in opera and revolutionizing opera while you reinvent it. I wish I had that in my life. I wish I had a playwright and a director, and I was the actor."
In the past decade the actress has added wife, mother and even chicken farmer at her Connecticut home to her impressive resume, and LuPone is quick to point out that here lies a vital difference between herself and Callas, who despite critical acclaim was unable to achieve personal happiness: "[Callas] was a great artist. I am not a great artist," LuPone surprisingly asserts. "I have a great life. I have a great love. I have a career...This woman was a disciplinarian. This woman was devoted. I'm only devoted up to a point. . .
"Someone said you hear the imperfection [in her voice]," LuPone continues, "because she was so close to perfection. I am nowhere near that. I'm not saying that to ingratiate myself to anybody. This is the truth. [Callas] started studying at a conservatory six days a week when she was 15 years old. Now I've been studying all my life, but not in the manner in which Maria Callas studied. If I had a choice of learning a role or sitting by and watching the chickens, guess what it would be?" As LuPone asks this question, a glint of irony hits her eye. "Well, no, how can I say that?" she chuckles, "I'm doing a role. But I'm missing the chickens and the family real bad."
Quite modest words from a performer who was described by Variety's Greg Evans as "commandeering a Broadway stage like few other performers." And, LuPone's preparation for her current role found the Juilliard graduate immersed in the tapes of Callas's master classes and working with both an Italian language instructor and a dialect coach in order to be as honest as possible in the embodiment of the legendary performer.
LuPone's career has been chock full of portrayals of extraordinary women, and she admits there is an added pressure when portraying a real person: "Evita Peron [Evita]. Lady Bird Johnson ["LBJ: The Early Years"]. Maria Callas. These are people that existed. There's a responsibility to be as honest in the interpretation as you can. . .people either remember their image or they knew the person. There's a responsibility to the individual."
And, it's a responsibility that LuPone has met head-on. In fact, her first lines to the audience as Maria Callas sum it up best: "No applause. We're here to work. You're not in a theatre. This is a classroom. No folderol. This is a master class.". . . a master class, indeed.