Can a performing artist, whether it be legendary opera diva Maria Callas or veteran New York actress Gordana Rashovich, subjugate herself to a writer's intent while imbuing his work with her own unforgettable charisma? Is it possible to be at once transparent and luminous, reflecting a dramatic composer's fleeting brilliance while also radiating one's own ineffable genius?
For most performers, of course, those aren't questions at all. Instead they comprise an abiding, if maddeningly contradictory, credo that guides all artistic creation. And it's certainly true of the Denver Center Theatre Company's Master Class, the absorbing play that dramatist (and opera enthusiast) Terrence McNally has fashioned in adoring homage to Callas, his boyhood heroine. Unrivaled in her power to summon the deep-seated passions of opera's more emotionally demanding roles, including Verdi's Lady Macbeth, the imposing Greek-American singer, who died in 1977, is generally regarded as the twentieth century's preeminent dramatic soprano, flourishing in the Fifties and Sixties before gradually (though unofficially) retiring in abject seclusion and bitterness. In 1968, Callas's longtime lover, Aristotle Onassis, publicly jilted her in favor of Jacqueline Kennedy, shattering her spirit. By 1971, her voice was also broken, the tragic result of a grueling schedule and an all-out performing style that she maintained even during rehearsals. Nevertheless, Callas accepted an offer to conduct a series of master classes, which playwright McNally audited, at the Juilliard School in New York.
At times cruelly seductive and brutally honest, Callas was, as this play reveals, an exacting and driven woman who was nonetheless devoted to her students, even when she was understandably exasperated by their obtuseness or downright refusal to incorporate her advice into their fledgling efforts. Callas insisted that the classes were unequivocally devoted to matters of artistic principle and weren't intended to be about her or her particular performing style. However, she would occasionally and impulsively burst into song--McNally's play substitutes recorded music and spoken dialogue over piano accompaniment during such episodes, though all of Callas's "students" sing live--to illustrate a particular point. (In reality, the supposedly egomaniacal Callas was risking public humiliation and readily admitted on several such occasions that she was "not in voice today.")
Her eyes flashing with penetrating zeal and her every gesture and movement perfectly evoking Callas's unparalleled acting technique instead of merely imitating it, Rashovich leads the company with an astonishing portrait of the acerbic performer. As the play begins, we're introduced to a rehearsal accompanist, Manny (Dan Manjovi), and the first "victim," a wide-eyed singer named Sophie (Theodora Middleton). Before Middleton barely gets a note out of her mouth, Rashovich stops her by saying, "What's the point of going on with it if it's all wrong?" Then she verbally dresses down a statuesque opera-queen wannabe, Sharon (Luann Aronson), lecturing her on the finer points of delivery and presentation. The mortified student flees Juilliard's wood-paneled stage, an ill-advised exit that prompts Rashovich to utter dryly, "If her skin is that thin, she's not suited for this career."
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In the following scene, Rashovich berates and chastises a young tenor, Tony (Joe Cassidy), for his arrogance and lack of preparation, only to be reduced to tears minutes later when the cocky youth, inspired by his teacher's words more than he's been humbled by them, serves up an impassioned rendition of "Recondita Armonia," Cavaradossi's glorious aria from Puccini's Tosca. (Vintage footage exists, though it isn't used here, of director Franco Zeffirelli's 1964 Covent Garden production of Tosca in which, owing to her failing vocal prowess or perhaps in spite of it, Callas's superb acting reigned supreme; a few years later, she was again acclaimed for her acting--post-Ari, she probably understood the character better than anyone else--in the title role of Pasolini's 1970 film version of Euripides's Greek tragedy Medea.)
While the play's student-teacher clashes are engrossing, Rashovich's rendering of the private, inner Callas proves sublime. In Act One, the stage lights darken save for a single spotlight fixed on Rashovich, who reenacts a conversation Callas had with the contemptible Onassis. Vulgar and crass one moment as Ari, and vulnerable and wishing to please the next as Maria, Rashovich articulates the emotional fireworks that passed between the couple and eventually led to Callas's spiritual demise. (Though Callas reportedly died of a heart attack at the age of 53, her fans maintained that she died of a broken heart.) And when she recalls her years of triumph while performing at La Scala (the Italian opera world's "temple of temples," wonderfully depicted here by set designer Vicki Smith), Rashovich's performance reaches its zenith when she declares that she "could feel the stones of Epidaurus beneath the floorboards" during her operatic rendering of Cherubini's Medea.
Rashovich's virtuoso portrayal notwithstanding, McNally's oddly repetitive approach sometimes flattens the play's dramatic arc. For instance, all three students suffer from the same malady of substituting technique for heart, and both Acts One and Two follow the same lesson/ confrontation/flashback pattern. What's worse, some of Callas's bitchier comments, while no doubt reflective of her real-life personality, are magnified by the compression of stage reality. In all likelihood, the offhand remarks were intended as filler or small talk and not, as McNally has occasionally orchestrated their insertion, as a deliberate smokescreen by a shallow celebrity who sometimes had nothing better to impart. Also, it seems counterproductive to jazz up the classroom episodes with a few cheap jokes when the goings-on in most acting classes are far more dynamic than what the public typically sees as final product. Minor worries aside, though, Rashovich and the splendid supporting cast beautifully illuminate an artist's never-ending struggle to reconcile divine inspiration with human limitation. Their efforts serve as a reminder that, however painful at times, an artist's greatest challenge is the unflinching desire--and, as Callas points out, the sheer courage--to embrace one's all-too-human frailty.
Master Class, through April 17 at the Stage Theatre, in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis, 303-893-4100.