26 August 2015

Interview: Daniel Lammin on Masterclass

1–13 September

Maria Mercedes in the Sydney season of Masterclass. Photo by Clare Hawley 

The 2014 Melbourne Green Room Award–winning production of Master Class by Terrance McNallyhas finished its Sydney Hayes Theatre season and is returning to Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs on 1 September. Before heading beginning rehearsals, Lammin spoke to me about how they first approached the work, what it was like to be so successful, and how they’re approaching the remount.

The production won Maria Mercedes a Best Performer award and Daniel Lammin his first nomination as Best Director.

The play opened on Broadway in 1995. It’s fiction, but is inspired by a series of recorded master classes that Callas presented at Julliard in New York in 1971 when she was 54.

By then, she had experienced the best and the worst that fame and talent bring; from being the icon and La Divina to being judged on her weight and relationships. Lammin said, “she touched the divine, looked into the heart of the universe and heard what it sounded like, and no one comes back from that unscathed.”

She died of a heart attack in 1977 and is still iconised.

Daniel Lammin. Photo by Sarah Walker

How do you approach a re-mount knowing the expectations that follow such a successful first season?

My philosophy returning to Master Class was to regard the original season as unfinished. When I last spoke to Maria about the remount, both of us agreed that we had further to go with it, both in terms of her performance and with the production in general. Master Class is a deceptively dense play; its characterisation of Callas is enormous and the supporting characters are far more complex than they first appear.

Even with all the accolades and responses we got last year, we still wanted to go back and keep digging deeper.

How we approach that comes down to our own expectations of this new season. Not only will we be bringing a year’s worth of pondering and gained knowledge to it, but we also have two new cast members (Blake Bowden and Teresa Duddy), which basically means a completely new second act.
Because my original approach was to use the experiences of the original singers to inform their performances and interpretations of their characters, these new cast members will bring a whole new energy to the show and push myself and the rest of the cast into new territory. It’ll prevent us from resting on our laurels because there will be new dynamics and voices in the room that are totally unlike the original singers. The last thing I want them to do is imitate what was done before; I’m far more interested in what they have to bring.

That said, it is daunting and a little terrifying coming back to it given how well the first season went.
I’m still a young emerging director, so its success was overwhelming for me, and I’m a little nervous that I won’t be able to recapture whatever lightning in a bottle we got last year in our state of panic and passion in getting it on in the first place.

I don’t want to let down the audience, the cast and crew or the original production.

What gives me the drive with returning to Master Class though is that I’m not interested in repeating myself or just rehashing what we did before. Of course, we want to remount it because it was successful and people wanted to see it again (or at all), but artistically I had no interest in pulling it out of the box and plonking it on stage.

The play addresses so many things I feel very passionately and personally about – the role of art in a society, the sacrifices it requires, how unforgiving it is, the role of women in the arts, a celebration of the powerful women who brought me up and my Mediterranean heritage – and I didn’t feel at all satisfied that I’d said what I needed to say clearly enough. 

I want it to be just as fresh and dangerous, and to continue to push the play, the cast and the audience even further. If we’re going to do it again, I want to work the show and myself even harder than before.

Photo by Clare Hawley

Not being an opera singer, how did you work with the singers to integrate their first-hand experience of master classes and the needs of the piece?

In past productions, the singers in Master Class had usually been played by musical theatre actors. One of the things the producer Cameron Lukey was determined to do was use actual opera singers who could perform the arias with their necessary power. Not only did I see this as a creatively exciting decision, but also a tremendous resource for me to use in developing and rehearsing the show.

I’m a naturally inquisitive person, so when it came to approaching the opera, I just let that part of my personality take over for a bit. I have a passionate love of classical music, but my knowledge of opera is limited, so I started by just sitting and chatting with each of the singers about themselves. Why did they become an opera singer? What is their relationship with their career? How did they feel about their industry and its internal politics?

This led to talking about their own experiences of master classes, both as observers and performers. I would note down every little detail, from where they would stand in relation to the master running the class to the usual mistakes people would make.

We also discussed the differences between their experiences and the play itself. This was the stuff we used and referenced on the floor, throwing in tidbits to add to the realism of the piece.

This also meant that, rather than imposing anything on the singers (none of whom in the original production had ever acted in a play before), we were making their characters and performances more personal. I was also lucky to have Lukey, who trained as an opera singer, who was able to clarify and educate me on the more technical side of opera.

I wasn’t interested in making a piece of theatre with Callas as the absolute centre of attention. I wanted every character to be as rich and full as her, and knew that my best resource was the singers themselves.

As a director, I use the personality of the actor to help them find and inform their character; especially in this case where I was a novice entering their world. I wanted to be respectful of this industry and the people working in it, and to give the singers the opportunity to share not just their love of opera, but the impossibly hard work and dedication that goes into it.

I wanted Master Class to be as much a celebration of them as it was of Callas.

Photo by Clare Hawley
Did you (and Maria) listen to the recorded Callas master classes or did you approach it as a piece of writing?

Maria and I both took different approaches in our preparation for the show. Maria buried herself in research, reading countless books and biographies of Callas, while I decided to keep my research to a minimum and focus directly on the play text itself.

I broke it right down dramaturgically, right down to its punctuation, and studied the structure of the play and the rhythms of Callas’s dialogue. This meant that Maria would bring her mountains of knowledge into the room and allow that to inform her performance and I concerned myself with the technical side, never allowing her to put a pause or a comma wrong. I felt that was far more useful, so we had a balance of biographical knowledge and dramaturgical understanding of the play itself.

What became our greatest resource though were the recordings of Callas, particularly those specified for use in the play.

What set Callas apart was the unrelenting honesty with which she sang, less interested with technical skill than with expressing truth. That’s why her voice is so powerful, because her soul is in her singing, and this was a big clue for us to unlocking the ideas in McNally’s text. We also had hours of recordings from the actual master classes the play was inspired by, so we could listen to how Callas approached the students. It’s not verbatim in any way, but it was an interesting document to complement our understanding of the play.

Photo by Clare Hawley
How did you work with your Maria to become a Maria that was both Callas and Mercedes?

One of the rules I imposed on the show was that we weren’t doing what I called “the gay fantasia of Maria Callas” or anything that revealed in any melodrama or camp. She’s such an icon and a caricature, but I wasn’t interested in that, and I didn’t think the play itself was either.
We were far more interested in the soul of this woman than of doing a convincing imitation. We never talked about recreating her mannerisms or voice. We let the text itself and the given circumstances of Callas’s background inform us.

Like the singers, I also used Mercedes herself as a resource, drawing on her Greek background and her own experiences as a performer. It was very important to us both that we preserved Callas’s Greek heritage, because she’s rarely played in productions of Master Class by a Greek actor. It also helped that my family background is partly Maltese, so we both understood what it meant to be Mediterranean, so her put-downs and blunt comments weren’t about being a bitch but about that wonderful bluntness that Mediterranean women have.

We also spoke a lot about women in positions of power, the sexual politics between men and women and how threatening Callas would have been to the patriarchal opera world of the time.

Her uncompromising position as both an artist and a woman had an enormous effect on her professionally and romantically. This is where I thought Master Class was quite a violent and disturbing play, and Maria totally embraced that, so that in her monologues at the end of each act we went for something more visceral and uncomfortable. We wanted people to walk away from Master Class not with a set of quippy facts they could rattle off, but a deep understanding of the soul of this woman; one both immense and totally broken.

I have this driving need in being a theatre maker. With everything I do, I’m trying to hear the sound of the universe. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I want to hear the forces at work around us in all their beauty and their violence, and theatre is the tool that my inquisitive mind chooses to use to try and hear it. Callas was one of those people who actually heard it, and you know this from listening to her sing.

She touched the divine, looked into the heart of the universe and heard what it sounded like, and no one comes back from that unscathed. For Maria and I, we want the audience to catch a glimpse of that, a woman caught in a awe-inspiring and terrible ecstasy that has made her divine and ripped her apart.

It’s an impossible task to set ourselves, but it was what we saw when we read the play and listened to Callas sing, and that’s what we wanted to give the audience.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

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