October 1st, 2012 | Published in Feature
Photo of Maria Callas by Angus McBean
A Vivoscene Feature Review by Brian Miller
Regardless of how you feel about opera you owe it to yourself to attend the current production of Master Class, being staged at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre from September 27 to October 27, 2012. The play, written by Terrence McNally, won the Tony Award for Best Play back in 1995 when it was first produced. The subject matter is ostensibly a master class for opera singers, being taught by no less than Maria Callas, a few short years before her untimely death at the age of 53 on September 16, 1977. The chief concern in the play, though, is McNally’s exploration into the life of an artist, the choices an artist makes in the process of committing oneself to achieving greatness, and the price exacted for those choices.
Gina Chiarelli as Maria expertly presents us with a tempestuous and self-absorbed creature who has scaled great heights and suffered much misery in a career that brought fame, extravagance, and a torrid, tragic love affair with Aristotle Onassis, who was considered the richest man in the world at that time. Maria had given up her sparkling operatic success in order to be with her beloved Ari, for whom she had left her first husband. The greatest irony behind her sacrifice is that Ari had no taste for opera at all, calling Maria “the canary”.
After Onassis decided to marry Jackie Kennedy for rather sordid commercial reasons, Maria was left devastated, eventually dying a recluse in a Paris apartment. Throughout the early 1970s she toured sporadically and taught occasionally. One such master class is depicted in the play.
The staging is simple: a piano (played with wonderful execution by Angus Kellett), a table, and a tall chair at which Maria sits imperiously, offering up her direction to three different students, (Shannon Chan-Kent as Sophie, Melanie Kruger as Sharon, and Frederik Robert as Tony) each of whom by the way can truly sing.
The students, of course, are expecting that they will perform for her, then be expertly critiqued and instructed by the greatest opera singer of the twentieth century. But that’s not quite how things turn out, as Maria has something different in mind, being far too consumed with her memories of great performances and failed romance to conduct an ordinary master class. Therein lies the play’s consummate perfection; through Maria’s misdirection of her students and her reliving of crucial scenes in her life we learn far more about the nature of art, its relation to commerce, and the temptations to which Maria has succumbed. By not teaching the class, then, she teaches us. Ultimately she learns she has betrayed herself and her own talent.
The audio work in the performance is terrific: we do, through clever and believable means, hear extracts from several recordings of the real Maria Callas. It’s more than enough to remind us that she is the standard by which all singers may be judged, and that she was the finest singer of the twentieth century, bar none; the finest singer in any language, in any genre of music.
That‘s not to say she always had the most beautiful voice. She had the courage to sing ugly; many singers have commented that to be a complete artist, one must reveal all sides. Many actors in recent years have had the courage to gain weight, to appear without makeup for their roles, and show the less glamorous aspects of their appearance for the sake of authenticity. Witness Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull” and Charlize Theron in “Monster”. I like to think that Callas was ahead of her time in her dedication to the composer, to the work, at the risk of sounding less than beautiful.
What constitutes artistry in vocal performance? McNally has his characters address this from several sides of the question, and I’ll offer up another perspective for your consideration.
Renee Fleming, one of the most prominent of contemporary opera singers, attempted to define the source of Callas’s artistry. As beautiful as Fleming‘s voice is, even she had admitted that Callas placed her own personal stamp on everything she sang, something by the way which Fleming does not (imho). Here is what Fleming has to say on Callas:
“For me, in purely vocal terms, it was the sound of sadness in her voice that was most moving – something in its chiaroscuro sound is like a knife in my heart. It‘s impossible to know if that was the sound her voice was naturally imbued with, or if it was the heartbreak in her life that colored it so.”
Terrence McNally succeeds brilliantly in conveying that heartbreak and this production of his play is very well directed by Meg Roe. The setting is The Juilliard School, New York, 1971-72. The entire cast and crew are to be congratulated for this sympathetic and inspiring performance which truly transforms the theatre and the audience into a Juilliard master class auditorium.
And one final note: if attending Master Class is your first experience of Maria Callas, I recommend you explore her music further with the following two audio/video purchases:
Romantic Callas, the 2 CD Special Collector’s Edition with a wonderful 100-page luxury booklet – EMI Classics Recordings
Maria Callas, The Callas Conversations, the 1968 Interviews with Lord Harewood, including filmed performances of arias by Massenet, Bellini and Puccini: this is a DVD from EMI Classics. Filmed performances of Maria Callas are hard to find, though this one is truly worth owning.