Theatre In The Park’s
“MASTER CLASS” by Terrence McNally
REVIEW BY STEPHEN CORDELL
A Divine ‘La Divina’ at TIP
Theatre In The Park presented the Triangle with a stunning bouquet Friday night (August 14) with the opening of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” on TIP’s intimate arena stage in Raleigh’s Pullen Park. Lynda Clark in a self-directed tour de force as famed opera soprano Maria Callas delivered a captivating showcase of Terrence McNally’s masterful homage to his late beloved operatic diva for which he won a Tony for Best Play, and Zoe Caldwell won for Best Actress in a Play, in 1996.
This nearly one woman show, with the assistance of an unflappable onstage piano accompanist, a surly, rough-hewn stagehand (Christopher Coby) who is ordered about most comically by the exasperated Callas, and three aspiring opera students who serve primarily as foils for Maria’s musings about herself, her life, her career, and her passion for high artistic achievement, was inspired by a series of master classes Callas conducted at the Julliard School in 1971, a few years prior to her death. At least that is the nominal setting for the piece. What purports to be a master class for this select trio of students transforms the TIP theater into a master class for all of us in what it takes, and what it costs, to attain the Olympian heights of artistic achievement as Maria Callas succeeded in doing.
Mr. McNally is a master craftsman himself in the high art of engaging dialog, and skillfully engaging an audience. Ms. Clark’s performance and McNally’s words quickly won us over – as Callas’ character puts it – in the “battle” of the artist to “conquer” the audience. We surrendered early, and willingly accepted Ms. Clark as Callas, happy to participate in and be witness to her beguiling “Master Class.”
Ms. Clark’s “Callas” is acerbic, barbed, caustic, and often hilariously funny. In her words directly to audience members, “I don’t bite. I bark. I don’t bite.” – though her victims may think otherwise.
Indeed she does much more than that. She leads us through an intriguing glimpse of the hard work and soul-wrenching toughness needed to scale the heights of this sublime 16th century art form known as opera. As her “student” victims one by one approach the sacred space of her stage presence, they are tested in the fire of Maria’s merciless critiques. First Soprano Sophie (Katherine Anderson) does a marvelous job of showing the progression from timid – and intimidated – dormouse to confident performer under the insistent urging of Maria’s tutelage. Ms. Anderson, like the other singing students in this production, has a fine voice, and as the “Master Class” continues we are treated to some moving examples of operatic performance.
Tenor Tony (Antonio Delgadillo) begins by infuriating Callas with his lack of preparation, and when we think his session with the diva is quite at its end, Tony turns and engages her in a battle of wills that becomes almost a seduction of the vulnerable master. His talent and determination win him a second chance, and his performance moves the steely Maria (and us) with his soaring voice. “I never really listened to that aria before,” she explains.
The best of the three, though, is Second Soprano Sharon (Rozlyn Sorrell) in the role which won a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play for Audra McDonald in 1996. Sharon appears for her session in a flame red ball gown – a choice that Callas compliments, then demolishes with the advice to never wear such a gown “before midnight at the earliest, and never to class.” Sharon is so instantly distraught she flees from the stage only to return later and eventually soar to new heights with a Lady Macbeth aria from Verdi’s great opera, urged on by Callas’ taunts, exhortations – and her mantra: It’s all in the music. “You must listen to the music.” “Discipline, technique, and courage! That’s all there is!”
Each of these singers is at last rewarded with our vigorous applause. Callas appears to approve of our heartfelt response, indulging us for a few moments before silencing us instantly with a gesture, thus turning our ovation to laughter and returning our attention to where she believes it truly belongs: herself and her heroic struggle as an artist.
This play takes us on an exhausting, exhilarating journey of what it is like to pursue such a lofty career. It also takes us through some difficult, heart wrenching soliloquies on a darkened stage, a spotlighted Maria baring the dark passages of her soul for our mute consideration: her deep resentment of her sister, her profound feelings of inferiority, her joyless marriage to a much older man, and her obsessive submission to her own brutal Greek god in the person of her long-term lover Aristotle Onassis, and the grief of her loss of an infant son by him. It was said that Onassis gave her over for Jacqueline Kennedy, though he continued to see Maria from time to time in Paris to resume their passionate affair that had lasted for more than nine years. Perhaps it may be suggested that Onassis was a collector of beautiful, tragic women. In any event, he is portrayed in “Master Class” as a tyrant through the bitter words of Maria.
These soliloquies are difficult to perform and disturbing to witness. (One perhaps should be warned that strong language is used that may not be suitable for children, though children would probably not enjoy this very adult play.) However Ms. Clark has mastered this role and her depth as an actress sustains us, mesmerized, through this fascinating evening of theater.
Born the youngest of three children in New York on December 2, 1923 to Greek parents, Maria Callas showed early talent as a singer. Her mother brought her back to Greece to study music, and she later began her operatic career in Italy. The arc of her career was meteoric, such that Opera News wrote in 2006, “Nearly thirty years after her death, she’s still the definition of the diva as artist – and still one of music’s best-selling vocalists.”
Terrence McNally has a long history of creating engaging theater from his early work beginning in 1969 with “Next,” and continuing with among others “The Ritz” (1975), “The Lisbon Traviata” (1985) , “Love! Valour! Compassion!” (1994), and librettos for “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993), “Ragtime” (1998) and “The Full Monty” (2000).
Performance dates and times:
8pm: Aug 14, 15, 20, 21, 22 / 3pm: Aug 16, 22, 23
Tickets: Adults $21 / Seniors (60+) $15 / Students/Active Military $1