By George Basler

Andrea Gregori has made Maria Callas a signature role. She’s played the renowned and influential opera singer four times in theaters across the Southern Tier but never gets tired of the part in Terrence McNally’s play Master Class.

“I find her fascinating. The role is difficult and demanding, but I don’t know if I’ll ever portray a role I identify with as much,” said the former resident artist with Tri-Cities Opera.

Gregori returns to the role for a fifth time when a new production of McNally’s play opens Thursday (April 28) at the Cider Mill Stage in Endicott. The production, being staged by BLAST (Bold Local Artists of the Southern Tier), will run through Sunday (May 1).

The production is being directed by Kate Murray, BLAST’s executive director. “If you’ve seen it (the play) before, you’ll see something new. If this is the first time, you’ll fall in love with the story and music,” Murray said in a recent interview.

Master Class, which opened on Broadway in 1995 and won the Tony Award for best play of the year, is based on a series of master classes that Callas, in the twilight of her career, gave at the Julliard School of Music in 1971 and 1972.

In McNally’s fictionalized version of one such class, Callas both berates and encourages her three students while also retreating into recollections of her enormously successful yet painfully heartbreaking life.

McNally wrote brilliant monologues revealing that, while Callas presents herself as larger-than-life, she’s still “a tortured soul,” Gregori said. The speeches cover Callas’ younger years as an overweight ugly duckling, her fierce hatred of her rivals, her triumphs as a singer and her relationship with Aristotle Onassis, which left her emotionally devastated.

“She worked incredibly hard but was incredibly insecure,” Gregori said. “She lost 80 pounds in eight months and transformed herself into a glamorous figure, but, even after she achieved fame, she was still an insecure little girl.”

Gregori has appeared in numerous local productions and founded her own theater company, Theatre Street Productions, which has staged productions nationally and internationally. Every time she plays Callas she finds new layers to the diva’s complicated personality, she said. As a singer herself, she can identify with Callas’ insecurity.

One “new” thing Murray is finding in the BLAST production is the play’s moments of humor amidst the serious elements, Gregori said. “This time she (Callas) is a little more playful with the singers. Maybe some of the harshness is out of the character. It’s a little lighter,” she added.

The Cider Mill cast features Jana Kucera, Jarod Hinton and Michelle Kearley Thompson as the three students. All have performed in other local productions and recitals. Also in the cast are Sonny DeWitt as Callas’ pianist and Zach Curtis as a stagehand.

While Gregori is a singer, she does not sing in Master Class. Instead, audience members will hear recordings of Callas’ voice, and that’s fine with Gregori, because she wants people to understand what Callas sounded like.

“She was just such a unique artist,” who believed in acting with her voice, not just standing there singing. Gregori said. That’s one reason “why she suffered an early vocal decline, because she always gave 110 percent,” Gregori added.

Thompson, who plays the second soprano in the Cider Mill production, has found her role challenging, but fun to do. It requires her to sing an aria from Verdi’s MacBeth. “I hope I’m up to it,” she said.

 In the end, Thompson said, she hopes “audience members take away bits of Callas’ humanity that McNally has put down beautifully in his script.”

 IF YOU GO: Master Class will be performed at 7: 30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (April 28-May 1) at the Cider Mill Stage, 2 Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Tickets at $25 can be ordered on the Cider Mill Stage website, Cider Mill follows Broome County COVID guidelines, so currently masks are optional.