To sit through a real master class, in which voice students work with a master on their technique and interpretation, for most people would probably be like watching a baseball pitching coach work with a promising young pitcher. On the one hand, a fascinating experience that makes the experience of watching all pitchers more interesting in the future. On the other hand, frustrating. Words spoken by professionals have meanings not clear to non-professionals and descriptions of technique that depend upon a particular type of physicality, whether in the arms, torso, legs or vocal chords, mean less to those who do not possess that physicality. Listening to a master singer discuss breath control with a young singer, the non-singer will inevitably wish they understood more of what was happening between the two professionals.
When Terrence McNally set out to write Master Class, a stage version of the life of the famous Greek soprano Maria Callas, he centered the action around a series of master classes given by Maria Callas at the Julliard in 1971. The classes were taped but McNally did not reproduce the actual content of the classes. The real Callas would not have discussed her personal life and personal history and her feelings about both in a class of music students. But the fictional Maria created by McNally can and does.
I saw the last performance of Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Master Class this weekend. If there were any more performances I would recommend the show but now it is too late. This was the first time for me seeing Master Class and, in my mind, I thought it was a one woman show. It isn’t. There are others on stage but the actress who plays Callas is on stage almost the entire time and has most of the dialog. There are also three actors/singers who play her “victims” (a joke, she says) who arrive to sing for her and receive her assistance and critique. There is the accompanist, Manny, who is on stage with her the entire time and interacts with her. And an actor who plays a stagehand who fetches cushions and foot stools and glasses of water for Maria and who, to her chagrin and amazement, has no interest in what is going on onstage.
What I liked most about this play is how McNally has Maria walk through the arias with the two sopranos, discussing the meaning of the words and the emotional state of the character and the physicality. An audience may not understand discussion of breathing and vocal technique but we can certainly appreciate discussion of character interpretation. “I’m an opera singer not an actor” one of the students says to Callas and Callas is shocked. Opera is acting. Otherwise it would be a recital. On the other hand, the tenor who shows up and admits to not knowing a thing about the meaning of the Puccini aria he is singing manages to transport Callas, who claims she has never really listened to it before, always waiting in the wings during that aria, preparing for her own entrance and focusing on preparing for her own performance. Having worked back stage for many years for a local community theater company I completely believe that.
When Callas finally lets the music students sing through the arias without interruption, the lights are dimmed and the music changes to recordings of the real Maria Callas singing those same arias as the stage Maria remembers things about her life, her fears, her joys, her loveless first marriage, her affair with Ari Onassis, her abortion and her ultimate dumping by Onassis for Jacqueline Kennedy. “Ho dato tutto a te”, the stage Maria says, “I gave everything for you”. This is a line from Medea, the story of a Greek woman who gives her whole life for Jason only to later be dumped by him for a younger woman. A princess. These monologues were particularly effective with Maria taking different voices as she creates dialog between herself and the crude Onassis.
Local actress Lavonne Byers is Maria in this production. It must be a hard role to step into, following in the footsteps of Zoe Caldwell (who won a Tony for the original) and Patti Lupone and the other great actresses who have appeared in this role. Byers carried the part perfectly with just the right combination of vulnerability and ego. We were sympathetic with her while, at the same time, sympathetic to the character of the soprano Sharon who finally loses her temper at the end and tells Maria off. Byers dominated the stage and, as Maria says, “Art is domination.” I tip my hat to Byers for managing to accomploish this after a particularly horrendous start to the performance in which, in the first 3 minutes of the performance she completely blanked out, apologized to the audience, saying something about it being the “last night” and ultimately leaving the stage for a few moments and starting over. Twice. I’ve never seen that happen before in any theater production. And the fact that she could finally overcome whatever the issue was, grit it out and give a captivating performance gave the whole performance a certain “edge of the seat” quality that was very similar to the feeling I sometimes get at opera performances right before a young or slightly older opera singer reach for that high C.