A buzz from the Sydney season of this show kept appearing on my social media feeds but didn’t prepare me for the impact of this production of Master Class.
Based on a series of actual masterclasses which Maria Callas gave to young singers at Julliard in 1971 through ’72, Terence McNally’s writing also takes us into Callas’ internal dialogue in a way that the original participants might only guess.
Master Class opened at the John Golden Theatre on November 5, 1995 with Australian born Zoe Caldwell in the role of Maria Callas. By the 1996 awards season, Ms Caldwell, industry professionals had recognized all – author McNally, the other performers including Audra MacDonald – and the production itself with multiple awards.
I was in New York at the time, and while I remember the play, I was also struck by the almost reverent tone the reviewer took (in the now sadly lamented Christopher Street Magazine). Having given a detailed description of the qualities of Ms Caldwell’s performance he also indicated in awestruck language that this play was indeed of some significance. This show has had a steady performance history internationally since then, including a number of Australian runs. This is all the more remarkable given that the primary object of interest – Callas herself – has been dead since 1977.
While the public’s fascination with her life seems to show little sign of fading, this is not the primary reason for the success of the show. It is what is revealed about the inner state of the diva, and the processes which shape the performer. Like the Greek gods, performers represent extreme ways of being – both a warning to us, and an invitation to contemplate how much their behavior reflects some of our own impulses. Callas had more than her share of tragedy.
From the beginning of this production we could be in the rehearsal space of any performing arts school. Maria Mercedes as Callas enters, and makes interminable fuss about every little thing – the lights, the chair, the sound, people’s clothing, the lack of both discipline and of ability to listen in contemporary society.
As each student enters, she intimidates them, talks about herself, and then builds them up again, often displaying a horrifying impatience with their ignorance. She tells them that their performances are not in any sense believable – even stopping them at the first note. Cycles of destruction and wan encouragement ensue. Even her pianist is needlessly warned and praised repeatedly.
Her students are quite prepared to perform their arias with youthful scant attention to the stories that the pieces come from. She finds this unforgivable, but eventually she does set the scenes for them, which they grasp in limited ways. As she does this, we feel a chill as we realize how the character’s situation has been mirrored in Callas’ own life. The writing skillfully never labours this, but the waves of realization build, and these climax in sequences where she is in her own world. Mercedes gives a truly bravura performance – the pressures keeping the performer on the very edge of sanity are truly lived. Everything about the show is completely believable, however. When the students performed, as Callas urged, hectored, abused and bullied them, it was impossible to believe that she was getting anything but natural responses from them, as each eventually gave more and more in their performances
The three younger voices – Georgia Wilkinson Teresa Duddy and Blake Bowden in the student roles are all excellent, and certainly a sufficient musical delight in themselves. Their performances were completely effective in their roles too, though, which given the way this piece works is a challenge in itself. It isn’t hard to imagine that for the younger cast, memories of the kind of hectoring instruction might be painfully recent. At times I really felt for them, withering under Callas’ attacks.
Maria Mercedes is always excellent – in this role she is extraordinary. She really lives this role. She doesn’t get to sing much in this – as Callas herself scarcely sang in the real masterclasses, but her presentation of text ostensibly for the benefit of the students is a lesson in acting skill alone.
Cameron Thomas as the rehearsal pianist /repetiteur was extremely well cast – an actor – singer – pianist completely at home with all he had to do. Producer Cameron Lukey gets a few moments as the school stage hand/technical support. I smiled as I recognised how well he captured that fascinating mix of smiling-to-please and belligerence I’ve seen in people with a job to do while dealing with the neurotic demands of the “difficult”.
Owen Phillips’ costume design provided much amusement, both with the authentic 70s clothes, and the inappropriateness of student attire for performance. Witty and sharp. Lighting (Brendan Jellie) and sound too (James Hogan) were first class – the space changed wonderfully as we were in and out of Callas’ mind.
The piece still stands up today – and will continue to do so, long after Callas has gone from living memory – because it is so much more than a view of her life. Director Daniel Lammin in his program notes states that this play is a chance to show “what we do”. As a performer, educator in the industry and observer I concur. McNally’s excellent writing reveals so much of the painful work that develops the performer.
There’s much to enjoy at a humorous level too – la Callas won’t hear a word from anyone else about other performers, but is quite prepared to make her own assassinations of their reputations. “She had NO business singing that role at all!” she huffs. She links the visceral with performance technique. “A man who enters the bathroom while a woman is taking her bath is nothing but a pig!” she exclaims. Then lowering her voice, the lesson becomes clear: “She should be able to tell from the way he enters how it’s going to turn out”.
It’s too easy for the academic mind to view her discussion at the start as self-centred indulgence. The diva spends a lot of time talking about herself, but little by little we come to realize that it can be no other way, and that insights into the world of the performer emerge from exactly this. Her fussiness turns out to be focus. It’s too easy to ascribe her behaviour to character – her behaviour is formed by the experiences she has had. Her performances are unavoidably a product of all of this – without this deep connection, there would be nothing to listen to.
There seems to be no distance at all between the performers and their roles here. It is extraordinary. When seasoned, highly respected industry professionals speak in an awed hush about a production in terms of “the best version of this show I’ve seen”, this is indeed a most significant production of a significant play.
Links of interest: http://www.playbillvault.com/Show/Detail/8387/Master-Class)