Maria Callas (Anna Gangai) coaches young mezzo-soprano Sharon (Jacquelyn Matava).Photos: Siggi Ragnar
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
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
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!
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.