Tackling Terrance McNally's Master Class -- his examination of the life, career, and soul of real-life opera diva Maria Callas -- is not something to be done lightly. Theatre Latte Da's Peter Rothstein knows this, as he directed the show for Park Square more than a decade ago.
Prime among the concerns? Having a strong actor in mind for the main role.
Enter Sally Wingert.
"I'd work with Peter if he was doing Mary Had a Little Lamb," Wingert says. In fact, the veteran performer was honored last month with an Ivey Award for her work this year, including in Latte Da's Cabaret. "I'm not a musical-theater performer, so to have two shows with Theatre Latte Da in one season is fantastic."
Master Class features Callas as a number of young aspiring singers. As they perform, Callas is taken into memories of her career and life.
"It is about performance," Rothstein says. "The performances of the other four can't be 'act-y' at all. They have arcs and character traits. They have to have stakes in the game, but it can't be acting."
Wingert's challenges start with the person herself. Callas was a larger-than-life character who is considered one of the top opera singers of the 20th century. McNally based the play on a series of master classes she gave in 1971 and 1972, after her retirement and a few years before her death.
"At its core, it is a pretty fascinating character study. You could do the narrative in one sentence," Rothstein says. "It is telling that Callas was a singer, not an instrumentalist. She is her own instrument and only instrument. Like an actor, people are always judging you. You are most vulnerable when you have given all of your life to it. What happens when it goes? What's left?"
"[Callas] was someone who was literally a diva. On one side there is hubris and the other side is insecurity. At any time, you are dealing with extremes. It is very exciting that way," Rothstein says.
"There is a great deal about her. She was interviewed on TV, and you can hear the master classes. She is fascinating. Anybody would find her interesting," Wingert says.
Wingert found additional kinship with Callas, who struggled with her weight. "I border between attractive and not-attractive. I know what it is like walking around not feeling attractive," she says.
The performance has also opened up Wingert's interest in opera. "I'm listening to the three pieces in the show. When I'm biking home, I find one of the phrases has caught in my head like a little earworm," she says.
For this production, Rothstein chose the Antonello Hall at the MacPhail Center for Music in downtown Minneapolis. "The room has fewer bells and whistles this time. There's not scenery and seven light cues. You enter the theater and you are already on the set," he says.
"The space works like gangbusters," Wingert says.
IF YOU GO:
Master Class In previews today; opens Friday through November 2 Antonello Hall, MacPhail Center for Music 501 S. Second St., Minneapolis $35-$45 For tickets and more information, call 612.339.3003 or visit online.