Divining the diva

Singing in My Sleep

By Julie Halpern
Directed by Lew Petterson
Producers' Club
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by Doug DeVita

With the possible exception of the rabid opera fan, the early 20-century singer Amelita Galli-Curci is largely forgotten today. One of opera's first superstars, Madame Galli-Curci had an unerring genius for self-promotion, fully exploiting the then-nascent recording technology to develop an international career. In Singing in My Sleep, Julie Halpern's passionate one-woman show about the diva, Halpern lovingly attempts to revive the legend of this singer; and if she isn't completely successful, it's not for lack of knowledge or dedication.

Although full of charming anecdotes, technical information, and the flavor of those giddy years between the First World War and the stock-market crash in 1929, the play never quite captures the woman with the intent that Halpern aims for. Alas, a certain "and then I sang" quality permeates her reverent, scholarly script, and several opportunities to create an involving drama are missed, most notably the already married Galli-Curci's liaison with her musical director, Homer, and their subsequent marriage. With Halpern's own musical director, Michael Kingon, sitting a scant three feet away, the opportunity to capitalize on this relationship seems a perfect chance to raise the dramatic stakes and give the evening the fiery guts it desperately needs.

Likewise, Halpern's performance didn't quite inhabit the Galli-Curci character. Always poised and elegant, she took some fearsome risks, including singing flat on several occasions, a risk that paid off when it was revealed that Galli-Curci suffered from a goiter that severely compromised her ability to control her pitch. But for a large part of the evening, Halpern remained curiously reserved, the larger-than-life qualities of her subject muted, laden down with cumbersome outer trappings and an accent that she seemed uncomfortable with. When Halpern returned for the second act, minus the heavy period wig and big puffy sleeves of her red velvet gown, she, and the play, lightened up considerably. She delivered a first-class rendition of "Sempre Libera" from La Traviata, every note securely in place; her quirky take on "Una voce poco fa" from The Barber of Seville was a funny, coloratura delight. And when she donned a simple bedjacket to portray the 80-year-old diva facing imminent death, the change was physically startling. Indeed, Halpern's best moments came in the last moments of the play, when she infused her character with a dignity, grace, and vivacity that had only been hinted at before.

Production values were simple: three pieces of furniture gave the impression of a comfortable drawing room; the lighting was serviceable if uneven.

Without the knowledge and intimacy the playwright is privy too, one-woman shows about nearly forgotten characters are very difficult propositions. Julie Halpern is to be commended for her dedication to keeping the memory of Galli-Curci alive, a dedication that hopefully extends to further development to make her wispy ghost into the full-fledged, blood-and-guts diva that she apparently was.

(Lighting by Cyrus Newitt, set and costume uncredited.)

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita