Welcome to the rehearsal hall. You are a student at a prestigious school for the performing arts. You have mastered your technique, but you are young. You have not thought through the circumstances, emotions, or reasons, let alone history, behind the intent of the composer. What better way to strengthen your artistic profile than to participate in a master class taught by someone who has reached the pinnacle? This is the setting for Master Class, the 1995 play by American playwright Terrence McNally about a master class taught by dramatic soprano Maria Callas. This fine production presented by MetroStage features Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas and is directed by Nick Olcott.
Master Class weaves details of personality and artistic process using the real life story of Callas. Born in Brooklyn, Callas family returned to Greece during her teenage years. Her prominence in the opera world is notable for a stage presence and a dramatic signature that renewed interest in bel canto opera. She was associated with powerful men such as the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and had multiple conflicts with opera companies around the world. Her career and personal life were turbulent but in 1971 she came to the Julliard School to give a series of master classes.
A simple rehearsal hall is brought to precise form by Set Designer Rhe’a Roland. There is a bare wood floor and a grand piano onstage. The two entry doors balance and the lighting is straight forward, a good place for the master to work. You await and Maria Callas enters. She reminds that the “lesson isn’t about me” though her insistent demands and minor adjustments are eventually made right by the Stagehand, played with halting servitude by Michael Sharp. With lighting, foot rest, and cushion in place we begin to see the students. First though, Manny, the Accompanist, (played by Music Director Joseph Walsh) must make a connection. Does she remember him from the day before? Not really, but almost.
The first student enters, mostly unnoticed. Sophie, (played by Emily Honzel) barely gets a note out, before criticisms result in multiple restarts. Her dress is wrong. Inner dialogue is non-existent and “fiery” temperament absent. Emily Honzel convinces as a believable and humble student, wanting to succeed, and willing to stand up to the rigor. Finally, Sophie gets past that first note and time transitions.
Caught in the stasis of recollection, the three curtained rehearsal hall windows become projection screens for photographs. Sound/Projection Design by Gordon Nimmo-Smith moves us back to a time when Callas was on stage, interspersing dramatic performance photos of Callas with studio portraits of Onassis. Narrowed into a spotlight and frozen in time, Dulaski creates a vivid monologue of a two way conversation, magnificent in conveying hints of an abused past, memories made whole with lighting by Alexander Keen.
Tony (played by Daniel Noone) is the tenor up for critique. He strongly states the simplicity of his desire to be an artist, and follows up with a solid performance. Maria mentions “domination and collaboration” and entanglements and regrets merge. “Making an entrance” is Sharon (played by Ayana Reed) whose vulnerability soon reveals a core of strength and a vocal range to match. Flawless transitions are made from the singer on stage to a recording of Callas. She reflects on a harsh, painful conversation, hints at an artistic temperament forged from hardship.
Master Class affords a rare glimpse into expression, artistic process, and interaction. As Callas states, “I was never young.” Many may feel this way when looking back or looking forward. With laughable moments, and as observers of precise choice, we enjoy being a class member. We sometimes feel sorry for that student up in the spotlight, though perhaps we are envious too.
Make your way to sit in at Master Class and you’ll be surprised by what awaits in this splendid and transporting production about life journeys, at the beginning, or by the end.
Running Time: Two hours, including one fifteen-minute intermission.