The New Repertory Theatre in Watertown brings the Tony Award winning play by Terrence McNally ("Love! Valour! Compassion!") to vibrant life in a production that places a legendary talent front and center in all her paradoxical splendor.
"Master Class", which premiered on Broadway in 1995 with Zoe Caldwell in a Tony-winning role, is based on a series of master classes soprano Maria Callas gave at Julliard in 1971-1972. There were 23 sessions in all involving 25 students she hand-picked.
Costume designer Stacey Stevens dresses Callas (a riveting Amelia Broome) in classic black with gold accents: Ring, earrings, chain around her slender waist. (It’s how Callas looks in at least one photo from those Julliard classes.) It’s simple and effective costuming that fits nicely with Callas’ instruction to her students to "get a look." (The nearsighted Callas fails to recognize her own pianist (Brendon Shapiro) because he’s no longer wearing the bright red sweater he had on the day before.)
Callas is full of advice for her pupils, dispensing her gems of wisdom with as much frequency as she voices assurances that this Master Class over which she presides is not at all about her or her celebrity, but rather about stagecraft and singing. Of course, the show really is about her, and Callas just can’t help but to dominate everyone in the room, be they students presenting their vocal talents for her inspection (Erica Spyres, Darren T. Anderson, and Lindsay Conrad), pianist Manny, or a put-upon stagehand (Michael Caminiti).
Callas is a dervish of critique and anecdote, doling out backhanded insults and regaling the room with tales of her own student days (this includes a riff on the classic "five miles through snow in bare feet" chestnut, though in her case it’s a fairly plausible: The Nazis were invading Callas’ native Greece even as she attended conservatory). For a time, it seems as though the entire play might go by without there being any singing, but then when the students do present their selections, and Callas verbally prods and pummels them from mediocre beginnings to stellar realizations, we gain a glimpse at the inelucible nature of true talent.
So what if Callas issues conflicting directives and focuses on details that seem irrelevant to the work at hand? The lesson in this master class isn’t on technique as much as feeling, transforming, and projecting that transformation to the listener. What might be sound advice for one moment and one interpretation is continually countered by contradictory, and equally valid, advice offered the very next moment.
Broome masters this fluidity, plus the temperament and underlying insecurities and traumas of Callas’ psyche. She’s a woman of immense accomplishment and authority in matters artistic; but when it comes to her personal life, marked and marred by controlling figures (her mother, lover Aristotle Onassis), she’s a bundle of pain and spiritual scars.
We see this most keenly when Callas, transported by the singing of her students, enters a dream state in which she both luxuriates and does battle with her memories. The white panels at the back of John Traub’s set -- panels that alternate with blank black spaces in a piano keyboard pattern -- slide away and reveal a mindscape of chairs, musical instruments, and other props from a career in music all whirled up and suspended in the air; Chris Brusberg’s lighting design becomes downright lyrical in these moments, transforming the space into an interior universe. Callas coos, pleas, and rages with unseen people from the past, and half-asides she’s muttered as though in passing during earlier scenes suddenly make perfect sense.
If all of this plays a little close to the tortured artist cliché, it can’t be helped. Callas was, by many accounts, tormented as well as extraordinarily gifted. McNally’s play may rely on a rather clunky device (the "Master Class" over which Callas presides and which engulfs the audience, making all of us students to her genius as well as her eccentricity), but within that framework his play creates a vivid and detailed portrait.
Broome’s performance, along with direction from Antonio Ocampo-Guzman (who makes this occasion a master class in itself, as he did two seasons ago with "Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune" and last year with "Art"), brings that portrait richly to life. Broome sings barely a note here (a marvelous B flat!), but what we do hear from her makes one yearn for more. The singing from Anderson, Conrad, and Spyres makes up for it, though, because all three give us "before and after" renditions that markedly deepen and ripen before our ears under Callas’ assaultive brand of tutelage.
"Master Class" continues through April 21 at the New Repertory Theatre’s Charles Mosesian Theater, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown.
Tickets cost $28 - $58. Students and seniors receive discounts; groups of 10 and more also eligible for discounts.
Box office: 617-923-8487. For tickets and more information, please visit www.newrep.org/master_class.php#more