The wildly talented Shelly Cooper returns to Los Angeles with her brilliant solo show, “La Divina: The Last Interview of Maria Callas” on January 28 and on demand February 3.
I was lucky enough to see “La Divina: The Last Interview of Maria Callas” at the Hollywood Fringe Festival last summer and absolutely loved it. Ms Cooper takes us on a deep dive into the life of an icon, told with reverence and honesty in the diva’s own words taken from her final interview, weeks before her death.
This wonderful and heartfelt show is as much an operatic concert as it is an exploration of the artist. Ms Cooper is an accomplished operatic singer herself and, as she sings some of La Divina’s most memorable songs, you can almost feel the presence of Callas, somewhere around us, such is the beauty of Ms Cooper’s voice.
“La Divina” is a quite astonishing solo show. Original, reverential, a gorgeous balance of anecdote and performance and heartbreaking revelations.
Absolutely not to be missed, and with the Whitefire Theatre’s really excellent streaming platform, you can view from the comfort of your couch if venturing out is still a little too much for you.
Since I have already reviewed the show, you can click the link below to read it, I thought I would ask Ms Cooper a little about her process and how she came to ‘be’ La Divina.
What drew you to Maria Callas as a subject for a solo show?
When I was 17 years old, my voice teacher discovered I was a soprano and had operatic capabilities. Before then, I had only been studying Musical Theatre singing and had never really listened to an opera singer before. She told me to start listening to opera singers, so like any teenager in the early 2000’s I searched for opera recordings on the illegal music downloading site, Kazzaa. The first recording that came up was a recording of Maria Callas singing the famous aria “Vissi D’Arte” from Puccini’s Tosca. At this time, I had never heard of this opera, I had no concept of what it was about, and I certainly did not know Italian. However, I began to listen and I got tears in my eyes. While I didn’t speak Italian, nor did I know the story, I could hear every emotion, every acting beat, in a single recording. After finishing the recording, I said to myself, I want to learn to sing like THAT.
What a solo show rather than a larger production?
I was asked in a theatre apprentice interview when I was 24, “What would scare me most in the theatre?” And my response was “Performing a solo show that I wrote in front of an audience.” One of the many things theatre has taught me is you should do things that are challenging, things that I could possibly fail at. It was in those experiences I learned the most. So I set on this journey to do something that, let’s be honest, scared me to death, and as I was creating this show, lots of self doubt crept in for sure.
What were the highs and lows of creating the show?
The Highs: Being able to create a piece that I wrote, to tell a story I was really passionate about, and to create an opportunity for myself to share my art. There are so many uncertainties in this business and I have never been one to sit around waiting for the phone to ring. Also, this show gave me control of the type of role and material I wanted to be seen as. This show has given me a strong voice that I’m typically not cast as in my professional acting career. I have been able to collaborate with some amazing people along this journey, most specifically my director from Greece, Mariangela Chatzistamatiou. Her guidance to help make my performance as authentic as possible was exactly what I needed. Besides meeting people through collaboration, I have loved meeting artists in the Fringe community. These artists come from all walks of life, different experiences, and I always learn so much by watching their work. This solo show has given me such confidence in myself as a storyteller, which to me, is the ultimate compliment. Also, I really LOVE sharing this solo show. I never get sick of it and I’m always finding new discoveries with it.
The Lows: Creating a show had many moments of excitement, but with all of the moments of excitement, came more moments of self doubt and imposter syndrome. Always second guessing my choices, specifically with the writing. I had never really considered myself a playwright and I was never the best academic writer. Insecurities about my writing, coupled with trying to honor an opera icon became (and is still) overwhelming. I have always been told I look very young and naive, that I would never be cast in a role like Maria Callas, so going against past director’s advice was difficult. I have learned to move past these ideas for the most part, however, every time I get ready for a performance, there is a part of me that thinks “Is this the time people are going to realize I’m no good at this?” This thought is not as overwhelming as it used to be, but it still creeps in some way.
What advice do you have to anyone thinking of creating a solo show?
Creating a solo show will take everything you have creatively…in the best and worst possible ways. Have a support system that can hold you accountable when you want to throw in the towel. Do NOT self direct. I repeat, do not become the writer, actor, and director of your solo show. It arguably sends a red flag to people if you act, write, AND self direct. You NEED an outsider’s eye that you TRUST. When it comes to the producing side of things, delegate as much as possible. For example, I have someone who is in charge of all of my marketing and social media posts. When you are self producing, the work piles up quickly, you want to be able to focus on the artistic side as much as possible. Speaking of the producing side, put yourself out there on social media! Do not worry whether or not you are over posting or coming off as annoying. You have a show and you have to get the word out there, social media is one of the best avenues for that.
“Dare to fail, don’t try to be too precious with your solo show. Your imagination is your best tool.”
What have you learned in this journey?
What haven’t I learned on this journey? One of the biggest takeaways is having control of my own artistic career. I have said this earlier, but so much for artists is waiting by the phone hoping to get the acting gig. It’s exhausting and at times really discouraging. This show came from a rejection. I really wanted a part, I didn’t get it. I was really sad and dejected, however, through the rejection, I found a strength and purpose: I decided to create my own work. Creating my own solo show has been liberating! I am a professor at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL and I make sure to tell my students my stories of rejection. Oftentimes we see and bask in the glory of successes, but how an artist deals with rejection, to me, is what defines them.
Would you do this again?
Yes…and I am! I am currently writing a new show called “Jenny Lind Presents P.T. Barnum” with the support from an Augustana College Wallenberg Grant. Through the Hollywood Fringe Community, I was able to meet the genius that is Jessica Lynn Johnson and I have been taking a variety of her classes to expand my writing style. Here’s my “elevator” pitch (haha): When Jenny Lind came to America, to tour with “The Greatest Showman,” P.T. Barnum, she witnessed a nation torn apart over slavery. She embarked on headline-grabbing tour that shared the spotlight with a political maelstrom. This one-woman opera show, fact checks “The Greatest Showman,” and that the real reason Jenny Lind (also known as the “Swedish Nightingale”) quit the tour. Jenny Lind was uncomfortable with Barnum’s relentless marketing of her and his questionable moral compass, or lack thereof. Eavesdrop on Jenny’s final, brave confrontation of PT Barnum and enjoy some operatic gems from Jenny Lind’s concert tour.
I for one am thrilled to be able to see Shelly Cooper as “La Divina” once again.
Please take this opportunity to spend some time with a true legend, Maria Callas, and to learn more about her story, her life and her beautiful, beautiful music.
Live, in person: Friday, January 28, 2022, at 8PM
On demand: Thursday, February 3 at 8PM
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Sherman Oaks, CA 91423