Keith Johnson, Deseret News
Anne Cullimore Decker, left, stars with Paul Dorgan at piano and Stefanie Londino.

Hounding press, dramatic weight loss, declining health, illicit affairs — these sound like stories ripped from today's headlines.

But this time, it's a slice of the dramatic life and career of Maria Callas, opera diva and the central character in Terrence McNally's play "Master Class," opening at Salt Lake Acting Company.

Eleven years after SLAC first staged the Tony Award-winning piece, the theater brings back local favorite Anne Cullimore Decker and director David Mong to reintroduce a legend.

"Maria Callas is a true diva, she almost invented the word," said Mong in a phone interview. "We know her as a slightly arrogant, demanding artiste, but in this play, we get to see beneath the surface."

In the early '70s, Callas, her voice broken and career faded, taught master classes — hands-on workshops in music — at Juilliard in New York. She had never taught before, and the classes were filled with not just singers, but the public came to see her, too. It was standing room only.

"McNally has very cleverly used these classes as a way to expose Maria Callas to us," Mong said, "we get to see both her public and private face. In the act of teaching, she tells us all about her career and parts of her life."

"She's reliving sentient moments in her life. Emotional moments, joyful, funny and tragic — and in each case it is the music that triggers the series of memories."

In the play, Callas works with voice students — two sopranos and a tenor, helping them invest themselves in their music, singing it with emotion — her trademark.

"There are two pieces we get to hear quite a large chunk of before Maria stops them," Mong said. And there are also moments when recordings of Callas are played. "I don't think you can sit and listen to this and not be touched by it," Mong said.

Even for those who don't love opera will be moved. "I know virtually nothing about opera, I'm embarrassed to say. But it's quite remarkable when you sit there and you hear this amazing music," Mong said.

"You don't need any prior knowledge. Really it's more about the student/teacher relationship," he added. "And you learn a little something about Callas along the way."

On the opposite end of the diva spectrum is Decker, the actress playing Callas.

"She is not Maria Callas in that respect," Mong said. "She is an absolute pleasure to work with. She brings gravitas, a really keen intellect, and she really does her homework. She knows Callas backward and forward, and she's just an amazing actress."

Joining Decker onstage is Paul Dorgan, accompanist, with Natalie Blackman, Shane Haag and Stefanie Londino as the students.

"This piece talks about the importance of art, and this is a great time to remind ourselves of what the value of that is — both for the people to perform and for those who experience it," Mong said.

"It's important to remember the human experience, and this play reminds us of that."

IF YOU GO …

What: "Master Class"

Where: Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North

When: Oct. 14-Nov. 8

How Much: $35-$50

Web: www.saltlakeactingcompany.org

e-mail: [email protected]