'Master Class': The role of a lifetime

Published October 29, 2009 9:58 pm
Stage » Anne Cullimore Decker's anti-diva style and a career's worth of craft helps the actor transform herself into the aging Maria Callas.
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Anne Cullimore Decker's ability to transform herself onstage into opera diva Maria Callas at Salt Lake Acting Company seems almost an act of sorcery -- a phrase that was used to describe Callas' own gift for bringing tragic characters to life with her voice and presence.

But magic would be too easy. Art is hard work, as both women could attest.

Callas grew up ungainly and unloved, submerging her sorrows in single-minded dedication to music and famously re-inventing herself as a slender sophisticate through sheer force of will.

The tragedies that befell the diva's onstage heroines resonated in her tabloid-ready life of rivalries, romances and, ultimately, rejection.

Decker paid a dear price for her success in the world of drama too, but did it without becoming a drama queen. Hers is a story of unswerving commitment to art, balanced by devotion to friends, family and community.

The play "Master Class" is set in the waning years of Callas' life, and presents her as an aging artist relegated to giving public classes as she looks back on her tempestuous life and prepares for a final comeback. Behind the façade of her imperious demeanor, she is terrified -- a feeling Decker says she understands.

As Maria, Decker is onstage and in command throughout the show: rattling off torrents of Italian, setting up cues for the small parts that surround hers, singing snatches of operatic roles, and timing intricate interior monologues perfectly against tapes of Callas' arias.

She played the role to acclaim in 1998 "but my brain was 11 years younger then," she said.

That first time, she took over the role when another performer withdrew, and learned it in only five weeks -- possible thanks to a lifetime's worth of stage experience.

This time, Decker has enriched her performance with research. She read biographies to learn justification for lines in the play; she watched documentaries to capture Callas' speech patterns and gestures. And always, she listened to recordings of Callas' operatic performances.

And then, there was the swimming pool.

Decker had previously taken up water aerobics as therapy after a knee replacement. She found that the pool at the University of Utah's orthopedic clinic was the perfect place for beating the play's lines back into her head, and Maria's essence back into her bones. "The physical movement helped my brain," Decker said. "I would listen to her before, then go to the pool. Then I could channel her."

In the years after playing Callas for the first time, Decker had found herself becoming tearful when she speaking of the influential opera star. Recalling the solitariness of reciting Callas' wrenching monologues in the quiet pool brought the same reaction. "In that pool, it was Maria," she said, her gaze hard and intense.

And in the darkened theater, audience members see what she means. Decker's competent and solid performance in scenes with opera students gives way to something more profound when the sound of remembered arias initiates a flood of memories for Callas.

Then the faded diva enters a trance-like state, reliving her great triumphs and rejections. And yes, Decker has been transformed into Maria.

"But Callas' -- and Decker's -- most powerful moments focus on her volatile relationship with Aristotle Onassis," wrote theater critic Barbara M. Bannon in the Tribune review. "Transported into the past by the music, she balances the rapture of performing and the adulation of the audience against her hopeless love for a coarse, crude, but charismatic man who was incapable of appreciating her artistry."

Looking back isn't so painful for Decker. She has a loving husband, Ashby Decker; children and grandchildren; and hosts of friends and former U. theater students who revere her.

A wonderful mentor is how Richard Scott describes Decker, recalling how she was quick to offer support when he took over as artistic director of Salt Lake City's Grand Theatre. "If you go somewhere, you are likely to see Anne," Scott said. "If I don't see her at the theaters, I see her at the symphony or the opera. She is interested in what people are doing, and always supportive of quality work -- a great gift to our cultural community."

Still, for Decker, there are losses, and troubling questions. "I'm at an age when I go to a lot of funerals," the 74-year-old actor said with a wry smile.

One of the hardest ones this past year was for Salt Lake City actor Tony Larimer, a frequent artistic collaborator and dear friend whose photos line the halls of Salt Lake Acting Company during this season, which the company dedicated to him. "When I go on every night, Tony is with me," she said. "Losing Tony was a real toughie."

Decker is gradually stepping down from volunteer stints on various arts boards, although she and her husband continue to attend a wide range of theater, music and dance events, along with U. football and basketball games. "You don't know what you can do unless you take it on," she said. "At this age, I bless every day I'm able to get up and enjoy the incredible life we live. I don't know what's around the corner, but I hope my health stays good so I can enjoy it. Unlike Maria, there are no regrets, no complaints ... I'm in the autumn of my life, but it's a beautiful autumn."

Decker doesn't know what, if anything, lies ahead in her professional life. "I'd like one more role, but I don't see it down the pike," she said. "There are not that many roles that are right for me now. This could be my swan song."

Mastering her craft

Anne Cullimore Decker stars as Maria Callas in Terence McNally's "Master Class," which plays Wednesdays-Sundays through Nov. 8 at Salt Lake Acting Company,168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets for the company's fundraiser are $35-$50 (student discounts available), at 801-363-7522 or http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org" Target="_BLANK">http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org.



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