Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Master Class"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Terrence McNally
directed by Alex Lucchesi

Maria Callas … Karen Fanale
First Soprano (Sophie) … Meredith Lavine
Second Soprano (Sharon) … Shannon Mühs
Tenor (Tony) … Matthew Campbell
Accompanist (Manny) … David L. Sprinkle II
Stagehand … Alex Lucchesi

In the early 1970s, the American soprano Maria Callas gave a series of master classes at New York’s Julliard School of Music that were well-attended by fellow artists and devotees as well as its faculty and students. Ms. Callas was internationally famous for reviving bel canto singing, the dramatic intensity of her performances and her tempestuous personal life; at the time of these classes, Ms. Callas had not performed in public for a number of years --- her singing voice was in decline, by then --- and these classes enabled her to guide and inspire a new generation of singers as well as gain the confidence she needed for a brief comeback a few years before her death. All of the master classes were taped; years later, a handful of them were released as a three-CD set interspersed with Ms. Callas’ own recordings of the arias being taught. Terrence McNally drew from these classes for his own MASTER CLASS which won the Tony Award for Best Play of its season but, based on the aural evidence, the Callas that Mr. McNally presents bears faint resemblance to the Callas on the Julliard stage.

According to John Ardoin, Ms. Callas’ friend and biographer, “Callas approached the role of teacher more as colleague than an oracular authority delivering dictums from on high. … She was more a friend than teacher, one who knew the difficulties facing her charges and who was anxious to help them over some of the pitfalls all artists encounter in matters such as breathing and pacing. … Her classes were a far cry from those of professionals who have used a master-class situation to promote themselves or their students as props.” The excerpts reveal a plain-spoken, no-nonsense woman more than willing to pass along the torch --- for all of her reputed temperament, Ms. Callas’ approach to opera was ego-free: to her, the composer was God and singers can only do him justice by being completely faithful to his scores (she abhorred interpretation). The subject matter is an intriguing challenge for a playwright --- to create the illusion of an actual master class, happening before you, here and now --- and there are also the production niceties: a bare stage with only a piano, an awe-inspiring personality and a few “victims”. But the subject matter is also severely static: musicians listening to the classes will be fascinated over how Ms. Callas helps her students shape their arias, phrase by phrase; the general public may find these passages repetitive, even boring, and so Mr. McNally gives his audience the familiar Callas of the headlines, instead --- vain, insecure, quick to sense a rival --- a diva who strides onstage announcing that she is here to work and then spends much of the evening talking about herself, complaining about the facilities, upstaging her students while undermining their confidence and lapsing into lengthy, bittersweet reveries triggered by certain arias. (Very little teaching gets done, here.) If you admire, revere or worship Ms. Callas, you may well be appalled over the imbalance between the woman and the genius. If you merely want to giggle and smirk over La Divina’s antics, you need look no further, especially since the late Charles Ludlum took his own camp portrayal to the grave, nearly twenty years ago.

Zoe Caldwell played this cartoon on Broadway to great acclaim but is not an operatic soprano, herself; thus, Mr. McNally’s Callas never sings (unlike the real Callas who vocalized alongside her students), which leaves an actress little to do other than To Be. The Mass Theatrica production was fortunate to have Karen Fanale, an accomplished singer, herself, supplying the dark good looks, the flashing eyes, and the testy, regal bearing composed of fire, not ice. Indeed, Ms. Fanale made such an entertaining whole from her half a loaf without lapsing into caricature that I was always disappointed whenever she came close to singing but never followed through for the few notes she did sing were as rich and ringing as her constant declamation (MASTER CLASS being one long recitative). Ms. Fanale also mimed a Bellini entrance, exquisitely; her eyes lowered, her mask a glowing study in modesty.

The play’s three students are facets of singers rather than singers, themselves: one soprano is a complete ninny, another is a future diva who turns on her teacher (what did she expect when she signed up for class? coddling?), and an overly confident tenor sends Ms. Callas into a near-swoon. Meredith Lavine, Shannon Mühs and Matthew Campbell demonstrated lovely instruments though the quality of Ms. Mühs and Mr. Campbell’s high notes did not equal the effort needed to produce them. Ms. Mühs’ characterization was too witchlike for my taste but Ms. Lavine was delightful as a butterball in pink who only wants to sing, period, and played a merry little stooge to Ms. Fanale’s straightwoman.

I like the idea of Mass Theatrica, which began life this past January and promises a yearly assortment of operas, plays, musical theatre classics and concerts, performed by emerging artists from the Greater Boston area (those companies that offer one type of fare bring in only one type of audience --- think about it). Mass Theatrica’s concerts “A Night of Love” (love songs and duets) and “Operetta Favorites” (Victor Herbert; Gilbert & Sullivan) have already come and gone, but its Summer Concert Series offers “Broadway --- Parisian Style!”, “An Evening of German Song” and “A Night of Italian Favorites”, and its season will conclude with Menotti’s “The Medium” and “Amahl and the Night Visitors”. Something for everyone, as Mr. Sondheim once penned.

"Master Class" (4-5 June)
St. George Greek Orthodox Church, LYNN, MA (4 June)
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, BROOKLINE, MA (5 June)
1 (508) 757-8515

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide