For most students, teachers exist only in the classroom or at office hours, doling out grades or answering questions. But, try as they may to keep glimpses of their personal lives to a minimum, many teachers can’t help but digress and offer something about their experiences that turns out to be much more interesting than their subject matter. Terrence McNally’s musical “Master Class” uses that setting to examine a certain teacher, renowned opera soprano Maria Callas and her greatest triumphs and defeats.
The play is set in the spring of 1972 at the Julliard School of Music. Madame Callas, unflinchingly played by Karen Kondazian, walks out onto the sparsely decorated stage – there is only a piano and a podium – and addresses the audience as if they were students. She is clearly a diva of the highest order, making demands for more water or lighting changes interspersed with reminders of past accolades singing in Vienna or at the Metropolitan. A series of three students come onstage to practice arias and each one is reprimanded with vary degrees of disdain. Often, Madame Callas has to show the students the way it should be done, exemplifying the equal emphasis between singing and acting in opera that she was famous for. She still has some clout and is not afraid to use it.
The audience’s connection to the drama works deceptively well in creating some empathy for the students on stage. For example, the audience laughs when the Madame stops a student in the middle of a note, partially because they are glad they don’t have to be on stage, and when her teaching finally elevates a student’s performance, the audience pays attention to the pupil’s technique as if they are learning as well.
Each student that comes onstage displays a naivetŽ that seems a little forced at times, but their singing is beautiful. All three actors – Andreas Beckett, Khori Dastoor and Fleur Phillips- actually sing their arias, which only adds to the authentic atmosphere of this play and its fictional class.
At many points in the play, Madame Callas says, “Now forget about me, I’m invisible!” To forget her, of course, is impossible. Kondazian plays her with the epic presence of an operatic Citizen Kane, accomplished, respected and reviled, yet not immune to regrets of a life and love that have passed her by. During two of the arias, Kondazian manages to play multiple characters in flashback, telling the unseen story behind the teacher’s veneer of authority and success over her critics. She traverses the dramatic range from comedy to drama with the same skill an opera singer uses to jump up and down the musical scales. An entire scene from the past is created through one monologue, and she never even leaves her podium. The result is, simply, an amazing study of character and bittersweet triumph.
If you’re looking for a unique and compelling theater experience, “Master Class” does not disappoint. Who knows, you might even learn a thing or two.