Master Class hits a high note at Miners Alley
The words "diva" and "legendary" could have been coined to describe Maria Callas, one of those fiery, imperial, larger-than-life talents who defines her art form for a generation — though critics have been divided on whether her voice was a gift from God or an essentially flawed instrument. Callas's life provided an interesting mix of high-minded dedication and salacious gossip for biographers to chew over. Having endured the privations of war and poverty — and overcome a weight problem — she sang her way to the heights and performed in the world's great opera houses. She eventually left her first husband for Aristotle Onassis, one of the richest and piggiest men in the world — and then he left her for Jackie Kennedy, seriously besmirching that elegant, whispery-voiced American icon's reputation.
Playwright Terrence McNally captures Callas's narcissism, her sometimes vicious small-mindedness and also her love of music in Master Class, a play that in itself balances between kitsch and art. It asks us to think about the meaning of art, and a life dedicated to art, and also about what happens to a great artist, a world conqueror, when his or her career begins to die. Watching, I thought about a biography I'd once read of Nureyev. This great and astonishing star — this onetime angel of the ballet — refused to stop dancing. By the end of his career, audiences were booing as he made his labored way around the stage. It's a heartbreaking image.
From 1971 to 1972, Callas taught a series of master classes at Juilliard, and McNally has reimagined one of those classes. In his play, Callas is a dominating bully, with vicious things to say about rivals like Joan Sutherland. But she is also fascinating and intelligent. Her comments on her students' technique are incisive, and she is able to respond with generosity to genuine talent — though when she does utter a kind word or two, she usually feels impelled to undercut the praise soon afterward. She thoroughly cows her first student, a shy young soprano. She flirts with a tenor. Then in comes the Second Soprano — and she is made of far sterner stuff than the first. A battle of wills ensues. Periodically, as one of her acolytes sings, Callas moves forward to share a vivid flashback about her life with Onassis and the child he bullied her into aborting (this biographical fact is disputed). While she speaks, we hear the recorded voice of the real Callas — which truly does sound celestial.
Director Robert Kramer scored a coup when he cast local mezzo soprano Marcia Ragonetti as Callas. This is a woman who knows the meaning of the word "diva," and one of the evening's greatest pleasures is watching her demonstrate for a student just how to make an entrance. When she coaches, the words may be McNally's, but you can tell Ragonetti knows what she's talking about. The monologues aren't as entirely moving as they should be, perhaps because the writing is a bit obvious, perhaps because whichever student is on stage behind her is miming distractingly while Callas speaks, perhaps because Ragonetti rushes the transitions between sentences: When Onassis and Callas are arguing, the lines get mashed together, and it's hard to tell who's speaking. All three of the actors playing students have operatic voices. Kelly Twedt is sincere and sweet as the First Soprano, though I wish she would walk normally across the stage instead of taking those little mincing ingenue steps. Alex Sierra's rich voice is pure pleasure, a sensual experience like eating chocolate or sinking into a hot bath. As an actress, Boni McIntyre, who plays the Second Soprano, utilizes bold strokes rather than finesse, but her voice is wonderful and her passion so strong and transparent that at times her presence almost overpowers that of Callas.
We rarely hear voices like this in theatrical productions, and when we go to the opera, the singers tend to be a long way away. What's wonderful about this Miners Alley production is that the singing takes place in such an intimate space. When Callas talks to the audience, she's talking to you. And when the students sing, the only possible response is sheer wonder at the fact that the human throat can produce such a glorious sound.
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