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MASTER CLASS: The Age/Sydney Morning Herald

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See article in its original context here by Sonia Harford for The Age/Sydney Morning Herald.

Mercedes does Callas in a masterclass

Actress Maria Mercedes poses for a photo at the Hellenic Museum

Actress Maria Mercedes poses for a photo at the Hellenic Museum

When does an actor ever stop performing? Even off-stage, Maria Mercedes is an instinctive storyteller.

Leaning forward, eyes alight, hoop earrings swinging, she’ll set the scene. Places hold meaning and memory for her. She’ll tell you about the spot down the road in the inner north where her father once had a milk bar. Or the time she demanded her cats accompany her on a national tour of the musical Chicago.

“I had it in my contract … so in Paddington, Sydney, I had the three cats living with me at the apartment. They were lounging by the pool every day. The guests loved them!”

Lively raconteur she may be, but you can also sense the emotional depths she’ll draw on for her next stage role. Terrence McNally’s 1995 play Master Class portrays opera legend Maria Callas towards the end of her career. The setting is a Juilliard School class in which the imperious singer collides with her past – young students on the brink of success who know little of the sacrifices Callas made for her art.

Mercedes knows it’s one of the rare complex roles for middle-aged female actors. Zoe Caldwell led the original Broadway play to success, and the title role has since been played by Patti LuPone and even Faye Dunaway, with Meryl Streep tipped to star in a HBO television movie. Australians who’ve been the diva include Robyn Nevin and Amanda Muggleton.

Mercedes says she feels a strong affinity with Callas, given the shared Greek heritage. She’s equal to the task too, her own success arriving early.

At the age of 15 she vaulted to national fame when she won Young Talent Time and New Faces. “I was Shirley Bassey! I was the Greek girl with the big voice,” she laughs, silver hoops swinging wildly.

“All of a sudden I was well known all over the country and I hadn’t even left school yet. I was given a manager, and was touring the country with people like Jamie Redfern and Denis Walter.”

With acting lessons behind her, she also appeared in Homicide and Division 4, in the golden age of Australian stories on television. Yet for a long time, she played down her ethnicity thinking it limited her options.

“Then Ana Kokkinos came along with a film version of the book Loaded.” In Head On Mercedes welcomed playing the character Tasia. “We were represented honestly for the generation we are – we didn’t speak in Greek accents, we were being true to our experience.”

Now turning 57, Mercedes has also appeared in numerous musical productions, including Love Never DiesSunset Boulevard and Nine. In Callas, she found an uncanny connection, even before the Left Bauer ensemble offered her the role.

During a recent master class with Elizabeth Kemp from New York’s Actors Studio, Mercedes was asked to focus on one character; “and one morning Maria Callas entered my head”.

She began to read about the determined daughter of Greek migrants who went on to enjoy the heights of success and the depths of misery. “She grew up feeling ugly, so did I. I wasn’t blond and blue-eyed. Growing up in the ’60s was a difficult trail-blaze for the first generation of European immigrants.

“Her mum took her away from New York at the age of 13. She was made to feel inferior but she was in fact a valuable asset for her mother because of her wonderful voice … She found her way back to New York, back to her father, studied, made her debut in Europe, married a man 30 year her senior; event after event was about her art.”

Yet often the art was overshadowed by the drama of her life – the rages, feuds and walkouts either rumoured or real. As Callas became a star, she met Aristotle Onassis, left her husband and began one of the most notorious affairs of the 1960s. Then along came Jacqueline Kennedy to rock the luxurious boat. The tycoon wooed the widow, and Callas was cast aside.

Master Class takes up the story in the 1970s, when Callas was invited to teach. Seeing the young versions of herself on stage “did she feel intimidated or jealous?” Mercedes wonders. “Most of all Maria felt disappointed that these young students who had the world ahead of them didn’t do their homework and didn’t read the plays, the characters that actually came from Shakespeare.

“They would sing in Italian but had no idea what they were singing. They didn’t understand the language, it infuriated her.” Callas died just a few years later, at 53, diminished after her past glories.

Master Class is at fortyfivedownstairs from August 19-28.

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