The Diva-licious Carolyn Hennesy On Inhabiting Callas, Holding Oscar, & Meeting Garry Marshall

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic

A soap opera femme fatale/force-to-be-reckoned-with since 2006,  Carolyn Hennesy will be taking one of her many side trips to the Los Angeles boards in the commanding role of opera legend Maria Callas in MASTER CLASS, the first production of the newly-annointed Garry Marshall Theatre (formerly the Falcon Theatre), beginning September 20, 2017. We managed to catch Carolyn in her few moments of down time in between her day job (as legal eagle Diane Miller on General Hospital), manning phonelines for one of the many fundraisers she gives her time to, and rehearsing for Madame Callas’s tutorials in Terrence McNally’s play, MASTER CLASS.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview with me, Carolyn! You’re portraying the renown opera diva Maria Callas. Were you familiar with her accomplishments growing up?
Only peripherally.  I knew that she was an opera great, if you will, and that she was considered temperamental and brilliant… those words used in that sort of general sense in which history tends to mark individuals who’ve fallen out of our direct line of sight.  These are two aspects of Madame Callas that are often most on the tongue of anyone you ask, and even though I do love opera, that was only what I knew.
In studying her for your role, how would you describe Ms. Callas? 
In addition to an ambitious, focused, hard, intolerant, passionate genius?  Well, there’s also carefully crafted, hell-bent and ruthless.  With regard to Aristotle Onassis, the words besotted and desperate come to mind.  With regard to any moment she stepped on stage in her early career… mesmerizing, magical and jaw-dropping.  Later career… broken, in denial, yet elegant.  In researching her, however… and the process will continue long after the final curtain has been lowered on this production… the phrase (mine) “divine tragedy,” I think best sums up Callas.  She ran the gamut at once of otherworldly and yet so flawed.
Tell me your definitions of the label/title ‘diva’?
Very simple:  obviously “divine”… but not at all in terms of self-aggrandizement, or public haughtiness or superiority.  My definition simply means you are divine to work with, love and know.  With a secureness of self, you focus on others and becoming part of “the team,” whatever project is at hand.  Specifically in the performing arts, a diva works to make everyone else’s job easier; that’s the mission of the diva.  Divas can do that… because they’re, well, divas.
I have seen you in a number of public and semi-public functions, and you definitely do not come off as a diva (in the ‘other’ definition). So, what qualities of Maria Callas can Carolyn Hennesy more easily identify with?
I would hope I do come off as a diva using my definition, but I’ll leave that for others to say.  Regarding similar qualities… passion for our art, certainly.  Loving not wisely, but too well.  A desire to see the work continue.  Focus, determination, a personal mandate to be the best possible.  Fastidious.  And probably more than a little OCD.
Have you ever seen any other productions of MASTER CLASS before?
I have not.
Do you ‘steal’ from the best? Or try to ignore what’s already been attempted?
Not having seen an earlier production, I can’t steal and I can’t ignore.  With regard to other productions and portrayals of characters that have “gone before”… of course, I’ll occasionally gently and lovingly “lift.”  Everyone does.  If they tell you they don’t, they’re lying or they haven’t ventured outside their room.  By living we’re informed; being informed means a larger pool from which to draw.  Being human means you lift… occasionally.
Have you and the amazing Terrence McNally crossed paths before?
I have not had the pleasure before this.  Of course, I’ve seen McNally works: KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN; LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART, and FRANKIE AND JOHNNY. But this is our first real dance together.
You will be in the first production of the newly named Garry Marshall Theatre. Surely you and Mr. Marshall must have met in the Los Angeles Theatre community before. Share a wonderful memory of him, if you would.
Several years ago, Garry Marshall (and Héctor Elizondo) presented me with my Ovation Award for Theatre of NOTE’s THE FAN MAROO.  My dress was especially nice that evening, and as I was walking offstage I heard Garry exclaim, “That’s a slow-walkin’ dress!”
With your background and discipline in having to learn and memorize daily General Hospital scripts, is it now old hat to open a new theatrical script and have the memorization down in no time flat before you begin working on your characterization?
For this play?  Hahahahahaha… you’re funny.
You were just a toddler when your father Dale won his Oscar for Best Art Direction for the 1966 Fantastic Voyage. Did you get to play with the golden statute? 
I’m the only person I know…personally… who rehearsed their Oscar speech actually holding one.
At what age did you realize the whole significance of what the award meant to your father and his peers?
Early.  A very early age.  My father was revered, not only for his “divo” qualities (my definition) of teamwork and respect for others, but for his particular genius, and I saw that every time I visited his sets.  There are so many brilliantly talented people in all aspects of this profession, emphasis on the word “many.”  The little gold man, however, is the ultimate pat on the back from one’s peers and everyone wants that recognition.  Of course, they do; we do.  To have one in my home was like having a moonrock or the little toe of Saint Peter; my mother wouldn’t let me touch it until I was, maybe, 25.  My Oscar speeches were done when she was at the store.  I frequently told her we were in need of hot dogs or cookies. So she would dash out, and I could thank the Academy.
Did you ever want a jumpsuit like the one Raquel Welch wore in Fantastic Voyage?
Why do you use the past tense?  Have you seen my closet?
I’ll bet you still look great in it, too! OK, Carolyn, so what got you into flying through the air on a trapeze?
I needed to learn the static (or hanging) trapeze for a production of COMEDY OF ERRORS years ago.  From there (i.e., hanging upside down for monologues, and by only one arm for bits of dialogue); it was only a matter of time before I would want to start flying.  You know, as one would.
Have you been able to incorporate your trapeze expertise into an acting gig?
I have!  I was so vociferous about my love of the static trapeze on the set of Jessie that I (essentially) wore down EP Pam Eells until she wrote in a bit for Mrs. Chesterfield.
Now that you have been inhabiting Ms. Callas, what would you think Ms. Callas would think of Terrence McNally’s depiction of her?
There are many things with which she’d take issue… some of the denial, the feinting, the parrying.  She simply wouldn’t see herself that way… not even in her truly private moments.  The walls are too, too high.  But she would love his words with regard to art (music)  and her feelings about it.  The most honest line in the play is the line by which I believe she lived her life regarding art… and one which I also find haunting in my own life:  “It’s making people think that for that precise moment in time there is only way, one voice.  Yours.”
What impression of Ms. Callas would you like the Garry Marshall Theatre audience to leave with?
She bullied and bluffed and twisted people and situations only in service of art.  Her art.  She loved without reservation and paid dearly for it.  She was understood as much as she wanted to be and, ultimately, was the epitome of a divine spark in all-too-human form.  I also think that when she sang, God sang.
Thanks again, Carolyn. I look forward to experiencing your Callas diva-licious-ness.
For available MASTER CLASS tickets and scheduling through October 22, 2017, log onto

Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas in his career, including Ann-Margret, Diana Ross, Faye Dunaway, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard, Anna Nicole Smith, Margaret Cho, and three Catwomen—Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar. He had the fortuitous opportunity to conduct Lily Tomlin’s coming out interview. Gil has since reviewed movies and theatre for a number of local and national outlets.
A photo montage of Gil’s Halloween Carnavale photos through the last decade was recently included in the WeHo@ 25 juried exhibition.