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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Spanish-Language Version Of Master Class Signals A Budding Hispanic Theater Renaissance

By Magaly Morales

September 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved. 


Hard at work

(Sun-Sentinel/A. Enrique Valentin)


There was a time, long ago, when serious Spanish-language commercial theater was being successfully produced in Miami. But for whatever reason it disappeared, leading to a period dominated by lower-quality theater, mostly politically charged, Fidel-fixated comedies of the burlesque type.

"That kind of theater has always had its audience, which I respect," says Miguel Ferro, executive producer of the theater division at Venevision International, an entertainment company that has been trying for the past year and a half to raise the profile of Hispanic theater by mounting original plays and featuring local talent that represent South Florida's increasingly diverse cultural landscape.

Some are calling this an emerging renaissance in South Florida Hispanic theater.

Master Class, an award-winning tribute to soprano Maria Callas, is the seventh production Venevision has mounted in South Florida, and the first of many the company hopes to bring to Broward County.

The show, under the direction of Venezuelan playwright César Sierra, opens tonight at the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.

"We want to show the community that we can produce shows of the highest quality and featuring the biggest stars," says Ferro, who left a promising career in finance to follow his passion for the performing arts. "We want to make South Florida the capital of Spanish-language theater."

Venevision International belongs to the Cisneros Group of Venezuela, the largest shareholder in Univisión, the leading Spanish-language TV network in the United States.

The theater division has already presented in Miami the original monologues ¿Divorciarme Yo? and El Aplauso Va Por Dentro, and the comedies A $2.50 la Cuba Libre (which also had a successful run in New York), Baño de Damas and the dark comedy La Lechuga.

Ferro says Spanish theater, as in English, is done for the love of the art. "Because no matter how much effort you put into it, and how full a theater gets, the profits, at the end, are always laughable," he says. "So our goal is merely artistic. We want to produce and present professional productions to try to promote the performing arts in Spanish, featuring Latin productions, actors and playwrights."

The Miami success prompted Isilio Arriaga, president of Hispanic Unity of Florida, to lobby the Broward Center to bring the Venevision productions north.

After accepting Arriaga's challenge, Ferro then started looking for the ideal play.

"Our first impulse was to present a play written by a Latin American playwright," recalls Ferro. "However, we considered that in such an important hall, it would be more interesting, and daring, to bring a Broadway show."

Ferro traveled to New York and met with many people, among them Max Ferra, the artistic director of the Hispanic theater company INTAR. Ferra suggested Master Class, an award-winning play by Terrence McNally that gives a peek inside the public and private world of the legendary opera diva Maria Callas.

"I had already seen several versions of the play," says Ferro. "But it wasn't until that moment that I thought of it as an option."

With the play in mind, Ferro returned to Miami to search for the right actress for the lead role.

Every time Ferro knocked on a door looking for an actress, Yolandita Monge was suggested. Monge is a Puerto Rican singer and actress, who in August launched a tour for her first album in three years. Ferro said he was aware of Monge's career, but as a singer, not an actress.

"When I met her in person, and saw her gestures, her way of talking, I found what I was looking for," recalls Ferro. "Yolandita fits the concept I have of Maria Callas."

Monge is one of the most popular voices in Latin America and is well-known in the United States. She also has under her belt 12 telenovelas (Spanish-language soap operas) in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Colombia. And a little theater experience.

"I did a play in Puerto Rico about five years ago, but I wasn't looking for something like this," Monge recalls during a break from rehearsal. "I was about to start touring, and had a lot of work and not enough time to dedicate to a play of this caliber."

She said she tried to come up with reasons not to do it. "But somehow, destiny wouldn't allow me to say no," says Monge, who rehearsed for Master Class on weekdays, and flew to performances on weekends.

Monge had not seen the play, but she has been reading a lot about Callas and has watched her on videos to learn some of her mannerisms.

"I think Callas and I are somewhat similar, in the sense that we both have the same convictions and definition of what it means to be an artist," Monge says.

But Monge -- who is petite, blond and tanned -- will have to go through a complete transformation to resemble the opera diva, who was of Greek descent.

Venezuelan makeup artist Alexis "Remy" Rivera will basically erase and redraw Monge's facial features, with emphasis on the eyes and brows. Her tanned skin will be lightened with body makeup, and she'll wear a black wig.

The play's director, Sierra, was another who fell under the spell of Monge's characterization of Callas.

"He told me he couldn't direct Master Class because he was about to go to Spain to start a project," recalls Ferro, who asked Sierra to come with him to watch Monge's first reading. "Yolandita was so unbelievable, she impressed him in such a way, that César turned out postponing his trip to Spain, and decided to stay and direct the play."

The version used will be a translation by Morris Gilbert Raisman, which is the adaptation that toured Mexico. The production, which will cost Venevision approximately $150,000, will be further adapted to fit the South Florida market, cleaning up all the colloquialisms and using the most neutral Spanish possible.

The rest of the cast includes Cuban soprano Elizabeth Caballero, tenor David Pereira and soprano Mónica Camafreitas. Enrique Cirino and Marcel Guerra complete the cast.

Maria Callas was one of the most admired opera singers of all time, known to legions of worshipers as La Divina. In 1971 (just six years before her death), Callas was invited to teach a series of master classes at the famed Juilliard School of Music. It is this event from which Master Class springs.

Since its debut in 1995, Master Class has earned playwright McNally several awards, including a Tony.

Master Class has been produced in Spanish in Argentina, Mexico and Brazil. This is, however, the first Spanish-language version to be presented in the United States, and also the first time the actress playing Callas is a singer. In the play, the Callas character does not sing at all. Original Callas recordings are played during dreamlike sequences.

Ferro says the company already has two more projects in the works, depending on the success of Master Class.

"We need the support of the Hispanic audience in Broward," he says. "We need them to incorporate theater in their agendas as an option for entertainment."

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