Master Class by Terrence McNally. Directed by Daniel Gidron.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"It’s not a question of the note. . ."
Strong women are played by Shakespeare & Company’s Annette Miller. Golda Meir, Diana Vreeland, Martha Mitchell have come back to life in her body, hands, voice and face. Now she joins the pantheon of fine actresses who have portrayed the Greek-American soprano Maria Callas; they include Zoe Caldwell, Tyne Daly, Patti LuPone, Dixie Carter. In "Master Class" she steps into the black pantsuit of the world’s most dynamic opera singer whose only goal is to inspire young singers to do their absolute best in bringing to life great musical characters. As usual, Miller has taken a giant step ahead of the pack in this part and leaves an indelible impression on the audience of having met Maria Callas in person.
It’s not that she’s made up and bewigged and made to look like Callas. It isn’t that she sounds like Callas, either. It is just that in her portrayal of the woman she seems to have channeled "La Divina" somehow and what comes through is the re-physicalization of all that made Maria Callas so special.
Some hated her. Some loathed her. Some despised her. Some idolized her and made of her greatness something of their own. Her voice was not the most beautiful; in fact it was sometimes grating and annoying. But her interpretive skills were nonpareil. No one else could bring to a role such honesty and so much back-story that is never spoken. Callas could make you believe she was the person she portrayed. And that is the quality that Miller always brings to her performances. There is probably no one better anywhere, or more perfectly suited, to bring to life Maria Callas.
Clearly her director, Daniel Gidron, believes this as well. There is not one moment in this performance that rings the word "actress" into the arena. He has been more her handler than her director. She is a free spirit on the small stage at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Shakespeare and Company campus in Lenox, MA. As Callas explains to her students at the Juilliard School of Music at Lincoln Center in New York City, when one sings a role in opera, one gives it everything. "We are the ones who are left empty," she tells them and one of them, at least, gets it. Here is where the playwright exceeds the work of others; here is where this traditional "one-woman show’ becomes a play. This time Miller is not alone on her stage.
She gets to interact with five other characters, live and in person, and here is where she and her director elevate Callas to a God-like strata. In the play she has an accompanist, three students and a stagehand, all of whom she must educate in some way. The stagehand has no idea of how to treat a diva, a true star. Callas’ demands are minimal, a cushion, some water, things that anyone might need. The stagehand has a way to provide such things, and she learns how to do just that. Josephine Wilson does well in this role and we see in her performance the growth of a professional.
Nora Menken plays the first soprano, Sophie - with the nervous giggle, as an insipid, insecure individual and she manages it very nicely. As she attempts to sing an aria from La Sonnambula, one of Callas’ great roles, she is stalled and stalled again and again by the teacher Callas has become. What starts out as simple jealousy become both deeply ingrained education and a monologue for the star which takes her through great performance professionally and personally dealing with her relationship with Aristotle Onasis. Both women are at their peak in this scene in the first act and Menken handles herself very well indeed.
Luke Reed, playing Manny the accompanist, has excellent skills at the piano and does fine work in the acting department also. His give and take with Callas is sometimes ridiculous but he manages to make it feel real and their chats are both credible and revealing of her nature.
Alec Donaldson as Tony the tenor is able to give us a sense of what is worst in the nature of young talents. His cockiness is nicely played and his rendition of Cavaradossi’s first aria from Puccini’s "Tosca" could not be better played as Miller’s Callas listens and reacts in just the way we hope she will. This woman has dealt with tenors before and in this case she does exactly what a great diva would do, as Donaldson brilliantly misunderstands her in only the way a tenor would.
Deborah Grausman faces the hardest challenge in her two scenes with Callas. She plays Sharon Graham, a soprano who faces the most difficult challenge of all in this play, acting her way into an aria/cabaletta from Verdi’s Macbeth, another great Callas role. As the professional guides the student into this scene, reliving some of her greatest triumphs and losses in another monologue that rips out your heart, Grausman’s Sharon becomes as fiery and fierce as her teacher. This role won the young Audra MacDonald her first Tony Award. Grausman does not as yet bring that full-blown rage into the picture, but she might in future performances. However, the show I saw gave us a view of her possibilities and she has the potential to pull off that edge of greatness.
By the way, this is a comedy. There are laughs galore and if you’re as lucky as I was, you may become part of the show as Callas instructs her audience on behavior, personality, "looks" and their role in an artist’s work. That the play is also moving and heartfelt and touching should not be a surprise for anyone. McNally is a fine writer and Miller only does plays that provide her with the opportunity to say something meaningful.
Normally I would comment on the production. There is no need when everything works so perfectly. Surround Callas with simplicity and you get Callas. That is what happens here. I was privileged to attend five of Maria Callas’ actual masterclasses in 1971 and I have vivid memories of her personality, look and work. Annette Miller brought all that back to me vividly and personally and professionally. If you miss this chance to meet the greatest opera performer of the 20th century, shame on you.
Annette Miller - Callas
Luke Reed and Annette Miller; photo: Kevin Sprague
Deborah Grausman and Annette Miller; photo: Kevin Sprague
Master Class plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company at 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through August 18. For information, schedule and tickets call 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.