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Overcoming a Bad Case of Nerves to Go to Head of the 'Class'

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Audra McDonald had to battle a case of nerves to win the part of Sharon in Terrence McNally's latest play, "Master Class," currently at the Mark Taper Forum and set to open on Broadway this fall.

Sharon, an aspiring opera singer, is bullied in a master class by legendary opera diva Maria Callas (Zoe Caldwell). During the course of her ill-fated lesson with Callas, Sharon sings Lady Macbeth's aria "Vieni! t'affretta" from Verdi's "Macbeth."

The effusive McDonald, 24, admits she was "terrified" about singing the aria and bailed out of her first audition. "I was, like, 'I just can't do it,' " said McDonald, who graduated in voice from Juilliard in 1993, but never envisioned herself performing opera. "Everybody kept saying I had an operatic voice, but I didn't want to give up the musical theater," she said.

A week after she canceled, her agent called and told her the part was still open. "He said, 'Look, they still haven't found anybody. Do you want to go in again?' " remembered McDonald. "So I worked on it again. At 10 minutes to my audition, my coach was saying, 'Shouldn't you be going?' I was so apprehensive and so scared about this audition, just because I was so afraid of the aria. I still am. It's so scary."

Because, she said, it's so technically difficult. "Maria Callas only did this role, this aria, about four times in her life," said McDonald, who grew up in a family of professional and amateur singers and musicians in Fresno. "It's a very demanding aria. Even if I was a serious opera singer and was singing, I would not be singing this stuff, which makes it a huge, huge challenge."

"Master Class" director Leonard Foglia believes McDonald has nothing to be nervous about. "It's a very difficult aria," he said. "She's just sung it so beautifully."

McDonald's own apprehensions, she said, have been worked into her portrayal. "I think for Sharon, the way that I've worked it, she realizes what an honor it was to be chosen," she explained. "I was at Juilliard and they would have master classes. It was a big, special honor to be chosen. So for Sharon, she realizes what a responsibility she has as a student to do well, to do well for herself and meet this legend."

Growing up in Fresno, McDonald's "whole life" was to go to New York and get a Broadway show. As a youngster, she was a member of a youth group that performed at a local dinner theater before the musical presentation. "Fresno has a performing arts junior high school and high school," she said. "I went through pretty much all of that."

Last year, she fulfilled her lifelong ambition. McDonald took Broadway by storm winning the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for her memorable performance as the sassy, feisty Carrie Snow in Lincoln Center's acclaimed revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel."

"It was an incredible artistic experience," McDonald said of "Carousel." But as far as all the critical praise and awards, "I don't think it really hit me until after it all happened. It was too overwhelming, I think, for me to really sit back and take in. I've only certain little memories of the Tonys. I remember looking for my lipstick right before they called my name. I remember getting dressed for the Drama Desk Awards, but I don't remember them. Maybe as time goes on, those memories will come back to me. It was all such a blur."

It all made a very clear impression on Foglia, however. "She has got it all," he said. "She has such natural ability, she doesn't even realize it." He recalled sitting down with the casting agents for "Master Class" and telling them "what we need is someone like that girl in 'Carousel,' someone who brings that kind of energy on stage. The thing about Audra's character is that she has to be some measure of a threat to Callas, have the presence to make Callas a little jealous."

The role, according to Foglia, "is in a way the fullest character [in the play]. Her character goes through the most emotional turmoil--other than Callas. [Even] without the aria, it is a full acting challenge."

McDonald agrees. Doing "Master Class" has been a master class in acting for her. "I still think of theater as school," McDonald said. "I learn so much night after night watching Zoe and being on the stage with her. It has been a huge learning experience."

* "Master Class" performs Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m. (except June 27-30) through July 1 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. Information: (213) 365-3500.

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