Even if you don’t think you understand or like opera, you might find yourself drawn into the lush world of Master Class, a sharply observed drama about opera and life that’s the third offering from Jewel Theatre Company in its new home at the Tannery’s Colligan Theater. Written in 1995 by Terrence McNally, the play imagines a voice class conducted by iconic diva Maria Callas during her tenure as guest lecturer at the Juilliard School in New York City in 1971-72.
Yes, a few snippets of operatic arias are sung during the course of the play, seeded in for maximum effect at crucial emotional moments, and delivered by a cast of excellent singers in the roles of Callas’ Juilliard students. But fear not; it doesn’t matter if your Italian is a little rusty. Callas herself—beautifully played con brio by Patty Gallagher—is onstage throughout to talk us through the passion conveyed in the words. And the way these words reflect the deep passions of La Callas’ life, gradually revealed in brief moving monologues, drives the drama forward.
The production is impressively directed by Susan Myer Silton as a chamber piece for five: Callas, three of her nervous, starstruck voice students, and her piano accompanist (the ever-reliable Diana Torres Koss)—or six, if you count a couple of comic appearances by a surly stagehand (Lucas Brandt). The action takes place over real time, with Mark Hopkins’ minimal set of wood-grain panels suggesting an academic lecture hall.
Into this low-key milieu strides Gallagher’s imperious, larger-than-life Callas, exuding wry wit, banked fire, and disingenuous modesty. (“We are not here to talk about me,” she reminds us constantly.) From her very first entrance, she takes the audience into her confidence, addressing us throughout the play as if we were all students in the lecture hall auditing her class. She dispenses random advice (“Get a look!” she exhorts us, or “Don’t act. Feel!”), and provides often waspish commentary on the students brave enough to meet her onstage.
Fresh, innocent, eager-to-please soprano Sophie (Jennifer Mitchell), sings the sleepwalking scene for Lady Macbeth from Verdi’s Macbeth—as soon as La Callas finally allows her to proceed past the opening syllable, “O …” The next soprano, Sharon (Aubrey Scarr) is so cowed by Callas’ criticism that she flees the stage. Handsome tenor Tony (Mete Tasin) is chastised for wanting to be famous. But his impassioned delivery of a love aria from Tosca leaves Callas speechless—and mesmerizes the audience.
In counterpoint to these student-teacher dynamics, and the name-dropping reminiscences of her famous life “in the war” or “at La Scala” with which Callas regales the auditorium, another theme creeps in: Callas’ life as an artist and a woman, and the struggles and sacrifices she’s endured to follow her art. Twice in the course of the play, the action onstage fades into the background, and the voice of the real-life Callas, recorded live in concert, flows through the speakers.
In these moments, the play’s Callas, driven to emotional peaks and valleys by the music she’s known so well, relives in monologue the moments of her greatest triumphs and tragedies, onstage and off. When Sharon at last musters the grit to return and sing another aria for Verdi’s Lady Macbeth—in which she convinces her husband to murder the old king—it’s the catalyst for Callas’ most heartrending memory.
Onstage “students” Mitchell, Scarr, and Tasin are all veteran performers with credits from the Bay Area to New York City to Europe, and their singing fills the Colligan stage to gorgeous effect.
And kudos to Hopkins’ lighting design, recreating (among other things) an impressionistic view of La Scala from the stage, and a rain of giant white roses during Callas’ monologues.
McNally’s vibrant play is itself something of a master class in stage writing (it won a Tony), and pursuing a life in the arts. And this JTC production delivers it with verve.
The Jewel Theatre Company production of ‘Master Class’ plays through April 3 at the Colligan Theater, Tannery Arts Center. 425-7506, jeweltheatre.net.