Terrence McNally’s 1995 play, Master Class, is guaranteed to excite the inner diva of any virtuoso actress. Few have the wherewithal to bring to life the ultimate diva: La Divina – Maria Callas. Several Australian actresses have enjoyed great success in the role, with Zoe Caldwell picking up a Tony Award in the play’s inaugural season in New York and Amanda Muggleton winning the 2002 Helpmann Award for Best Actress in a Play. Maria Mercedes’ brilliant performance in Left Bauer Productions’ incarnation is surely destined to attract similar recognition.
Inspired by a series of voice classes given by Maria Callas at the Juilliard School of Music in 1971, the play explores the inner life of Callas both as an artist and a woman as she instructs, berates, insults and encourages her “victims”.
The theatre space becomes an auditorium and members of the audience become the master class spectators, who in turn are charmed, instructed, appealed to and insulted. As Callas, Maria Mercedes enters an almost bare stage dressed in black and wearing a gold necklace and signature large glasses. A piano, with a genial pianist at the ready, a young soprano nervously waiting in the wings and an uncomfortable chair share the acting space. The house lights are up and initiate a series of complaints and imperious demands at the most inopportune moments as she sees to the “details”: lights, a cushion, a footstool, water and more water.
The narcissistic elements of her personality are seen in the way she treats the young singers. The first half of the play revolves around Sophie De Palma’s attempts to sing the sleepwalking aria from La Sonnambula. Or it would revolve around her if Callas would actually let her sing it. Only one note is uttered before she is interrupted. “You weren’t living the music!” This provides a key to the core of the play. What made Callas a living legend (apart from a spectacular voice) was her utter immersion in the roles she played. The intertwining of life and art, Love and Music from Tosca, is played out as she relives her career and thinks about the pain and humiliation of her relationships.
As Sophie De Palma, Georgia Wilkinson is permitted to sing some of her aria very beautifully. After interval, Robert Barbero, as the young tenor Anthony Condolino, who rather stereotypically thinks that the voice is everything, and Anna Louise Cole as the feisty Sharon Graham have an opportunity to present themselves as young singers of significant talent. Cole’s Letter Scene from Macbeth is dark hued and forceful. All three singers appeared to gain strength and vitality from Mercedes as an inspiring Callas and as a dynamic actress of great emotional range.
Mercedes’ affinity with certain elements of Callas’s Greek heritage, as well as her being an actress and singer herself, makes for a compelling performance. From sly humour to bitchy putdowns, from refined artistry to crude outbursts of despair as she laments her failed relationship with a totally unappreciative Onassis. It is like watching a Greek tragedy unfold. Despite all of Maria Callas’s less endearing characteristics, Maria Mercedes’ portrayal evokes admiration and pity. At some points of the most heightened tension the crescendo of recorded music, with Callas singing the featured arias, overwhelms the spoken, and sometimes shouted, soliloquies so that some information is lost. But this was a relatively minor problem and, in fact, contributed to a sense of emotional chaos in the final climax. The one line actually sung by Mercedes had huge impact.
Imaginative lighting throughout was a huge contributor to the creation of dramatic tension. Snapping out of the dark inner despair of her final soliloquy, the lights rise and Callas transforms herself once again into La Divina. The play comes full circle with a final address to the audience. She thanks her pianist Manny (as well she might since he put in such a sterling performance), announces “Well, that’s that” and briskly makes her exit.
One of my most cherished and enduring memories of a first-rate theatrical tour-de-force is Amanda Muggleton’s performance in Master Class. This is another.
Heather Leviston attended a performance of Master Class at Forty-five Downstairs on August 22, 2014.