Throughout history there have always been stellar, distinctively inimitable, executants of various artistic disciplines. It falls however to just a small handful of performing artists to have truly transformed their art-forms: Vaslav Nijinsky, Glenn Gould, Niccolò Paganini, perhaps Marlon Brando, but most definitely the Greek-American soprano Maria Callas. Opera post-Callas was never the same, and it was such a tragedy that personal circumstances shortened her performing career. Like most opera-loving Australians, I never had the good fortune to hear Callas live – luckily there is a significant recorded and filmed legacy, including her portrayal of Medea in Pasolini’s 1969 film, to remind us all not only of her incredible bel canto technique but equally, and arguably more significantly, of her distinctive dramatic characterizations. There is also Terence McNally’s play that was inspired by the series of masterclasses that La Callas gave to twenty-five lucky vocal students at the Juilliard School in New York in 1971/72.
Returning to the role in the Terrence McNally play after many years, in the Lawler Theatre, Southbank Centre, Amanda Muggleton gives an outstanding turn as La Divina. She inhabits the role of Maria Callas in exactly the same manner that Callas cajoles her young charges to forget technique, to forget the audience and their applause, and to just assume, free from any external distraction, their operatic personas. Commanding a stage presence that befits the Greek soprano who had an unparalleled ability to mesmerize with just a menacing sideways glance or even a simple hand gesture, Muggleton engages in warm banter with her attentive audience, who represent the Juilliard students fortunate enough to attend these historic masterclasses. Callas brought nothing if not great discipline and commitment to her work, and she expected no less from all her colleagues and here in the masterclasses from her charges. One of the many bons mots is Callas’s observation early in the play that nerves are just an excuse for lack of preparation. In a contemporary environment where so much academic research is wasted on trying to find the source of performance anxiety, Callas’s aphorism tellingly cuts to the chase. This is no-nonsense pedagogy.
Despite Callas’s repeated exhortations that the masterclass is not about her, in reality it is, as her audience/disciples hang on her every word, daring to hope that she will at any moment break out into even just a phrase or two of one of the proffered arias. Her student charges – ably portrayed by local rising singing stars Jessica Boyd, Kala Gare and Rocco Speranza – survive the hothouse atmosphere that is a public masterclass with varying degrees of success. One in particular visibly moves Callas as she – voice breaking – is reminded not so much of the career she once had (and subconsciously clings to), as of the profoundly affective emotions she could not help but experience when she herself sang.
Well-known conductor Dobbs Franks provides supportive piano accompaniment to the three student singers throughout. Yet this is Muggleton’s show from first note to last. There are few in Australian theatre with a CV as diverse, enduring and distinguished as Muggleton’s and this production is a triumph for the two-time Helpmann Award winner. It is a production not to be missed, whether you are a Callas aficionado already or not. February 22 it moves to Canberra and then Hobart.
As a welcome post-script to the play, Muggleton invites the three young singers to return to the stage to sing – three well known arias that reveal each of the young singers’ true technical and artistic mettle. Each performance is guaranteed to delight future audiences.
Editor’s note: Glenn Riddle reviewed this performance of Masterclass 0n January 10, 2017. In 1914, reviewer Heather Leviston referred to Amanda Muggleton even while praising Maria Mercedes’ brilliant performance in Left Bauer Productions’ incarnation, saying : “One of my most cherished and enduring memories of a first-rate theatrical tour-de-force is Amanda Muggleton’s performance in Master Class. ”
Go and see this play again. Clearly you won’t be disappointed!
Masterclass is at the Lawler Theatre until February 3, 2018