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Maria Callas (Anna Gangai) coaches young mezzo-soprano Sharon (Jacquelyn Matava).Photos: Siggi Ragnar
incident light
The real classes, captured on audio and addressed in a book by John Ardoin, were actually meaningful coaching sessions in which she critiqued and encouraged some 25 students drawn from 300 who originally auditioned. She was 48 at the time, and died five years later. In the play, she is in a classroom before an audience of students, three of whom have been chosen to sing for her. She does virtually no critiquing; instead she concentrates on the acting – how imperative it is to become the character – and demands that the texts of their arias be fully understood.
September 15, 015 Ironically, in two of Maria Callas’s  signature roles, the legendary soprano  sings of giving her all: “Ho dato tutto a  te” (I gave everything to you), from  Medea, and “Vissi d'arte” (I lived for  art), from Tosca. And that she did,  essentially wrecking her voice in her  mid-40s by – among other judgment  errors – having sung treacherously  difficult roles too early in her career. It is the older Callas, the one who is  keenly aware that her voice is  irreparably damaged, who is the  subject of Terrence McNally's Tony  Award-winning play Master Class  (1995), which opens the new Classic  Theatre season. Anna Gangai is a genuinely  compelling presence as she reprises  the tempestuous diva that she played in the Church Theater production (which I missed) some years ago. Classic's artistic director Diane Malone, who directed that show, expertly helms this one. The play was inspired by a series of 23 master classes given by Callas at the Juilliard School in 1971-72. Mr. McNally noted that the play is “a work of fiction,” which helps to explain why his Callas is snappish and wholly self-centered as a teacher. Beneath, however, we see a vulnerable, heart-breakingly insecure artist who lives in a world of what-was because she cannot bear what-is. Ms. Gangai's Callas is eerily realistic as she strides around the almost-bare stage in a flowing caftan, flinging such pearls as “If you can't hear me it is your fault. Listening takes concentration.” Or “A performance is a struggle. You have to win.” She makes deliciously snide remarks about other sopranos (tall Joan Sutherland was a “12-foot Lucia,” while Renata Tebaldi is dismissed with a wave and a sour face). In each of the two acts, Callas slips into a powerful flashback while a student is singing, recalling her own rendition of the aria and reliving fragments of her life at the time. Moreover, she mimics her first husband and manager, Battista Meneghini, and the crude, emotionally abusive Greek magnate Aristotle Onassis, for whom she left her husband. Among other things, she reveals that Ari – whom she never married – forced her to have an abortion. Ms. Gangai's readings here are  extraordinary. She lipsyncs Callas’s  recorded performances – in Italian,  yet – and convincingly evokes the  two men. The trio of excellent young singers,  all experienced in opera, include  soprano Amanda Golden as Sophie,  tenor Jerry Cordova as Tony and  mezzo Jacquelyn Matava as Sharon.  Callas stops shy Sophie from the  get-go, before she has sung more than  one note of an aria from Bellini’s La  Sonnambula, and berates her for not  “being.” Eventually, she is allowed to  deliver the aria in a glistening lyric  voice. Tony is the stereotypical cocky tenor, who is quickly given his comeuppance when Callas points out that he has no idea what he is singing. The Italian of the familiar aria from Tosca (“Recondita armonia”) is, um, Greek to him. Ultimately, his fluent, well-trained traversal is impressive, however, to us and to the diva, although she has no criticisms other than how essential it is to understand the words in order to convey their meaning. Sharon, the mezzo, was frightened offstage by the demanding Callas after her initial appearance, but she returns later to sing – beautifully and expressively – the harrowingly exposed entrance aria from Verdi's Macbeth. But not before she gives La Callas as good as she gave in a courageous diatribe attacking her for not helping and only wounding her “victims.” Ms. Matava is completely convincing, and Callas says as much while offering little of what she deems hateful: “feedback.” The set is almost bare, with  only a piano on one side – well  played by music director Josh  Pepper – and a tall table and stool on the other. Enormous  projections of Callas in various  settings – courtesy of  video/lighting designer Tim  Francis – enhance the  proceedings, as do Rick  Malone's wonderful recordings  of the real diva in her prime. Pam Slocum provides welcome  comic relief as the sullen,  put-upon stagehand who is  expected to jump at any command by La Divina. At the end, Callas makes a  statement that rings true for her  and does so for any artist or actor: “We leave the world a better place; what we do here matters.” In short, you don't have to be an opera lover to love this show, but if you are, what a treat! Diane Windeler Master Class runs through October 4 at The Classic Theatre, 1924 Fredericksburg Rd. Call 589-8450.    
Maria Callas (Anna Gangai) remembers La Scala.
Classic Theatre / Master Class From La Divina, lessons in being
See and hear Callas in the murder scene from “Tosca,” with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, from a 1964 performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Sophie (soprano Amanda Golden) sings an aria from Bellini's La Sonnambula under the fearsome tutelage of Maria Callas (Anna Gangai). 
Tony (tenor Jerry Cordova) sings an aria from “Tosca,” with pianist Josh Pepper.