If you think Maria Callas was too legendary to teach a master class, think again. The famed American-born Greek opera diva (1923-1977) actually conducted 23 such voice sessions during 1971 and 1972 at The Julliard School. Out Callas buff Terrence McNally (see his opera-rich 1987 gay relationship work “Lisbon Traviata”) was certainly the playwright to capture the iconic larger-than-life Callas (called the greatest soprano of all time by BBC Music Magazine) as well as the considerable insights she gave to budding singers. New Repertory Theatre is now presenting “Master Class,” McNally’s Tony Award-winning 1995 homage, in a revival as satisfying as a well-sung aria.
As always with “Master Class,” the audience becomes the Julliard students watching the singers-here two sopranos and a tenor- eager for Callas’ incisive analysis. La Divina – recognized with this name for her unique combination of technique and dramatics- singles out a few theatergoers-read students- at each performance whom she finds lack style and presence. Callas may seem overly critical to these surprised audience members. She may also seem impossibly fierce to the play’s fictional sopranos Sophie and Sharon and tenor Tony. Yet her strong advice about doing homework on the arias in question and their respective contents and characters are really a kind of tough love guidance based on decades of remarkable achievement, invaluable experience and tremendous personal sacrifice.
That sacrifice haunts Callas in two extended monologues-one in each act. Gratified by tremendous audience applause-in one case 37 curtain calls, she also vividly recalls enduring a poverty without new shoes and a Greece overrun by the Germans. Most arresting of all are Callas second act recollections of her turbulent love affair with Aristotle Onassis. There are two particularly visceral moments in the harrowing second act monologue. Callas captures the opera –hating mogul’s viciousness contending that only snobs and gays (the homophobic mogul employs the expletive ‘fags’) love her music. Worse, she relives the pain of aborting a child she dearly wanted at Onassis’ insistence.
McNally rightly gives considerable time to the seriousness of Callas’ art and the drama of her life. Still, “Master Class” also teems with memorable humor as she describes the singers as ‘victims.’ There are bitchily amusing put-downs of such estimable sopranos as Dame Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi and Beverly Sills-and especially Renata Scotto.
Given the richness of the part and the challenge of evoking Callas, many premier actresses have essayed the role. This critic missed Tony-winning Zoe Caldwell but did see Patti Lupone capture her fire and vulnerability on Broadway. Later Faye Dunaway caught her grandeur in a Boston visit. Under out director Antonio Ocampo- Guzman’s sharp direction, Amelia Broome- who demonstrated her own robust singing in a terrific SpeakEasy Stage Company edition of “Light in the Piazza”— combines the demeanor of a diva with the fragility of a tortured soul. When Broome —dressed in designer Stacey Stephen’s eye-catching black outfit draped in gold chains- counsels the primacy of collaboration and assets at one point and discipline and technique at another, her master class delivery is totally convincing. Her Callas put-downs have just the right blend of understatement and devilishness. Broome may not be as fiery as Lupone, but her monologues—particularly the heart-wrenching second act one- are consistently gripping and deeply moving.
The singers all display strong voices. Erica Spyres as Sophie—powerful as the daughter to Broome’s mother in “Piazza”- proves once again that she is an actress with great range and a very sweet voice. She has all of the initial tentativeness as well as the earnestness of the first ‘victim’ in the master class. Lindsay Conrad—properly overdressed by Stephens as the very confident second soprano Sharon- captures her attitude and easily displays the character’s impressive high register. Darren T. Anderson as Tony catches the cockiness as well as the resonance of the kind of tenor Callas enjoys berating. Busy Brighton pianist Brendon Shapiro , who plays master class accompanist Manny, does well with the very different demands of Bellini, Verdi and Puccini arias. Michael Caminiti is properly oblivious to opera as Stagehand.
Designer John Traub gives the Juilliard master class set an appealingly spare elegance. The piano keys-like backdrop opens up for each monologue to reveal suspended musical instruments and music stands. The precariousness of the pieces smartly matches the lost soul tone of Callas’ recollections.
Callas warns that there are no shortcuts to art. Sing properly and honestly, she advises. Ocampo- Guzman has cut no corners in a well-sung “Master Class” that does honor to both McNally’s fine play and La Divina.
The Arsenal Center is hosting its own master class April 16 guided by mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee, chair of the New England Conservatory Vocal Arts Department. Call 617-923-8487 or visit www.arsenalarts.org
Master Class, New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through April 21. 617-923-8487 or newrep.org
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