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Master Class

Master Class
Writer: Terence McNally
Director: Liesel Badorrek
Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli
14 June – 20 July, 2024

Winning the Tony Award in 1996 for writer Terence McNally, this dramatic production is based on Maria Callas’ master classes at the Juilliard performance school at the end of her career in the 1970s.  It’s a fascinating window into the closing years of an artist considered to be the world’s greatest operatic diva and Lucia Mastrantone succeeds brilliantly in recreating this complex, larger-than-life personality.

Mastrantone, as Callas, enters elegantly attired (Isabel Hudson) and chignoned as befits a fashion icon of the ’70s. The audience serves as part of the class and she inhabits the classroom as completely as she did the stage, elucidating what opera requires of the artist. Her attitude towards her art is uncompromising – it is exacting, passionate, perfectionist. She makes her sweeping statements on the nature of the art, but at the same time overturns them again, her comments laced with her sardonic sense of humour, so that the bemused audience is constantly kept guessing. She is mesmerising, funny and entertaining.

On stage with her are her piano accompanist (Maria Alfonsine) and later in the piece a cellist (Damian de Boos-Smith), who also serves as a sullen stagehand. There is a palpable sense of fearful diffidence amongst the attendees as the class commences – after all, this is the most revolutionary diva opera has ever known, with a reputation forged by her technical brilliance, passion and expressive flair.

Callas entertains the audience with operatic anecdotes, shot through with her quirky humour, but the narrative occasionally wanders off into personal introspective fantasy, before returning to the job in hand – instructing the hopeful but rather hapless students. She annoyingly interrupts constantly when they have only sung one word. Conscious of the importance of costume on stage, she berates first Sophie (Bridget Patterson) for her casual outfit then Sharon (Elisa Colla) for being overdressed, both of which raise Callas’ fashion ire. Tony, the over-confident tenor (Matthew Reardon), is also continually interrupted for not conveying the atmosphere of his setting.

If her treatment of the students seems somewhat brutal, it was not unusual for the time, when performance students were often raked with scathing commentary, perhaps as means of preparing them for the tough competitive world they are about to take on. Callas herself maintained her poise in the face of astounding cruelty in her early days as a performer, long before mainstream notions of artist wellbeing or body positivity became the norm. Those were the days when her very superior talents raised vicious envy among her less talented colleagues, and she in turn hated them. Her tough critique proves too much for Sharon who flees off stage, but returns later, to try again. It’s all to the good, as we witness the students freeing up their voices in glorious song!

While the students wrestle with her exacting requirements, Callas’ narrative drifts towards experiences of her personal life, revealing the fragility and vulnerability beneath the carapace – her early marriage to an older man who wanted a famous wife, then the pain of her protracted, hopeless and scandalous relationship with Aristotle Onassis. During this interlude, the lighting (Kelsey Lee) is reduced to near-darkness as Callas relates her painful times, with strobe-like flashes emphasising emotion, accompanied by snatches of the voice of real Callas from her famous performances.

This is a wonderfully revealing insight into Callas the artist, whose impact earned her the soubriquet “La Divina” and Lucia Mastrantone is magnificent in the role – the extended standing ovation at the end of the show was richly deserved.

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