By Tara Bennett
Whether audience members know, or let alone have heard, about opera singer Maria Callas, Master Class offers much to contemplate about the dedication towards one’s art.
Beautifully acted and sung, Theatre Baton Rouge (TBR), in conjunction with the LSU College of Music and Dramatic Arts, has created a finely tuned production of Terrence McNally’s play with music, which highlights the life of an extraordinary diva.
Co-directors Richard Baker and Patricia O’Neill find ample humor, drama and insight in this memory play, framed as a real-time master class based on the ones Callas gave in the early ‘70s at New York’s Julliard for a few carefully chosen opera students. The play explores what it must have been like for Callas–who is noted as one of the most influential vocal artists of the 20th century–as a lioness in winter, coaching emerging singers with ambitions to sing the roles she had once owned.
Sandra Moon, an assistant professor of voice from the LSU School of Music, delivers a less showy performance than Faye Dunaway did during the national tour, but is more believable by far. Moon balances the role of the dominating diva and tough teacher, producing a deft balance of comedy and drama. What lingers most however, is Moon’s pleasing subtle portrayal of an aging woman who can’t resist the steady pull of memories from a past filled with achievements and glamour, yet also riffed with struggle and loss.
While Callas is the forefront and focus of the show, each of the characters have their own moments where they shine. They do not necessarily compete with Callas in the spotlight, but the interactions with her students provide proper fuel for her fire.
Rachel Lorando, Erick Sanchez and Melissa Seidule all display opera-trained voices, and as the eager next generation, the three students sing for Callas with the hopes of getting her ‘feedback.’ They put their voices to good effect – at least when they can get a few notes in before Callas interrupts them with cutting remarks without so much as disturbing a lock of hair on her head.
As Sophie DePalma, the nominal focus of the first act, Lorando projects the gushing naiveté and polite deference of a born people-pleaser, but barely gets a note out before she’s sliced and diced by Callas. Sanchez, as the tenor Tony Candolina, maintains a cocky air virtually throughout his lesson, breaking out into a big smile when he’s able to sing just a bit more than Callas’s first ‘victim.’ Seidule reveals a powerful personality as Sharon, who might just have the kind of pluck and persistence to become one of Callas’ genuine protégés.
Truly, the twist in this show is gradually how fragile Callas becomes after each session. When Sharon finally stands up to her, Callas isn’t as biting or harsh as she was in the beginning, rather instead showing a hidden vulnerability. However, it’s not her students that shake her composure, rather the past memories they evoke, such as reliving her triumphant debut at La Scala, her career’s decline, her seduction by Aristotle Onassis and his eventual cruel dismissal of her in favor of Jacqueline Kennedy. These moments are the ones that are the hardest to pull off, but Moon succeeds well for a first time actor.
McNally’s play works better as a character study than a full-blooded drama, but in this production, the impressive musicianship of its cast, and most of all in Moon’s pleasing performance, audiences are unlikely to feel cheated. They may even learn a thing or two.
TBR will present Master Class until May 24 with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the LSU School of Music Recital Hall. Tickets cost $24 for general admission and $19 for students. Call 225-924-6496 or visit theatrebatonrouge.com for more information.