If you’ve lived your whole life for opera, or if you’ve lived your whole life without it, you owe it to yourself to see Terrence McNally’s play “Master Class”, itself a masterpiece of wit, wisdom and warmth. The winner of the 1996 Tony Award as Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, it was a tribute to the memory of his beloved La Divina, Maria Callas, as well as a vehicle for a star turn by a series of notable theatrical divas in various productions over the years. It was also, in the guise of a master class on operatic singing and technique, a window into the process of the making of art. In New Rep’s current production, in the masterful hands of Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, it is all of this and more. It’s heartbreaking and hilarious, an uncanny portrayal of a larger-then-life legend.
But warmth, from Maria Callas; surely that’s an oxymoron? Ah, the clever playwright knows his subject, the tempestuous soprano, through and through, and not just from her often notorious interviews, her visible battles with operatic moguls and her famous recordings. He actually attended several master classes she conducted, and has distilled his experience into a tight, illuminating and cleverly revealing study of the untold price of art. In her own words in the play, Maria (a spectacularly flawless Amelia Broome) stresses the essential need for an aspiring artist’s having a distinctive personal visual presence. She speaks of a student, Sophie, (Erica Spyres) about to perform, as “our first victim; a little joke”. She asks, or rather demands, that the soprano “Act, no. Feel. Be.” To a second soprano, Sharon (Lindsay Conrad), she commands that she “Enter…anyone can stand there and sing. An artist enters and is.” Later she reiterates that “an entrance is how we present ourselves in life”, making it quite clear that she considers us all as members of the class. To a third student, a tenor, Tony (Darren T. Anderson) she intones that he should be aware of his “bella figura”: “a singer has to know his assets”. To all of the assembled class, (and that would include us) she declares that we must be unique and distinctive in how we present ourselves; we must all have “a…look”.
Throughout the class, self-described as “the absolute center of the universe right now”, she dominates not only her hopeful students but also her accompanist Manny (Brendon Shapiro), whom she feels also lacks that distinctive “look”, and a stagehand (Michael Caminiti). In her own view, she is incomparable (“How can you have rivals when no one else can do what you can do?”). While claiming it’s not about her, we (and she) know that it’s all about her: “You have to be like a sponge. Absorb. Absorb…This isn’t just an opera, this is your life”. Broome dominates the stage, as Callas surely did, but she is surrounded by a stellar cast, as one by one they endure her exacting standards. Spyre’s portrayal of a promising singer yet to learn how to extrapolate life’s lessons into musical feeling, Anderson’s cocky but unsure tenor with an ignorance of what he is singing about, and Conrad’s initially nervous but ultimately challenging hopeful, are all up to the task, as are the two actors in the smaller roles, Shapiro and Caminiti. Every one of them has clearly studied this piece in depth; their efforts reward us.
Special mention should be made of the amazing Set Design by John Traub; simple but stunning, it makes what could have been a rather boring rehearsal stage into a versatile wonder. Given Callas’ emphasis on having one’s own look, Stacey Stevens’ Costume Design is perfection itself, as are Chris Brusberg’s Lighting Design and David Reiffel’s Sound Design. All of their expertise reflects the collaboration between Broome and Ocampo-Guzman who have recreated a legend for the ages, one who inspires as much as she instructs, and whose presence among us for just under two hours could stand as a master class in acting and direction when they perfectly intersect, as they do here. Their Callas is a teacher whose life is itself a learning experience for all who would assume the awesome task of artistic creation.
This master teacher speaks not only to her “victims” but to all of us when she declares: “You must know what you want to do in life, you must decide, for we cannot do everything…what matters is that you use whatever you have learned wisely…the only thanks I ask is that you sing properly and honestly. If you do this, I will feel repaid. Well, that’s that”. That’s that, indeed; although, in a sense, that’s only the beginning. What we learn about the legendary artist, with all her flaws and vulnerability, with all her brilliance and mastery of her art, could fill volumes. And as she would put it: “But that’s another story”.