Anyone who has ever been to a Karaoke bar with me knows that I am absolutely not a singer. I don’t understand music nor what it takes to perform it in any capacity. I can tell all you non-singers out there that it is in no way necessary to have any knowledge of singing, opera or musical instruments in order to enjoy Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Master Class. This is the story of Maria Callas, the legendary opera diva who fell from superstardom to become a part-time professor teaching the students at Julliard the essential points of opera and artistry in the 1970s. Her fall was due to her voice failing after a mere 10 years of stardom. Most attribute her loss of voice to a drastic weight loss that happened midway through her career. For more on Callas, visit Wikipedia here.
The show takes place, as Callas says right from the top, “not in a theater. This is a classroom.” She addresses the audience throughout the show and includes us in her processes with the knowledge she imparts to her students.
Tyne Daly is remarkable in the role of Callas. She perfectly encompasses “La Divina” in her need for pampering, respect and praise. She delivers each line with a perfectly non-specific European cadence that adds humor and authenticity to her role. What is most impressive is how she can make someone who was clearly so intimidating in life so relatable to an audience of people who likely have never experienced near the life she had. She perfectly encompasses the insecurity of her ability and physical beauty and the loneliness that exists in being an artistic leader, teacher or director.
The supporting actors in Master Class are also quite enjoyable. Jeremy Cohen as Emmanuel Weinstock, the piano accompanist, is sweet and specific throughout even with his minimal dialogue. Sierra Boggess as Sharon Graham, one of Callas most high end students, is brilliant in a role that perhaps is what Callas herself must have been in her youth. Garret Sorenson as Anthony Candolino has wonderful and honest moments, earning his right to perform his beautiful song. Alexandra Silber as Sophie De Palma finds some very funny moments as she brings the lack of confidence that exists deep in most artists right to the surface, and Clinton Brandhagen plays the Stagehand with appropriate comic timing reminding us where the priorities lie for those who work behind the scenes. Truly the whole ensemble makes up a strong evening of theatre.
Terrence McNally penned the script with shrewd empathy. Certainly there is no way he could have known specifically what inspired Callas to connect to her music that way she did. Surely he could only have guessed at the heartbreak and abandonment she experienced with her past loves and how that inspired the acting she did within her performances. He couldn’t have possibly known what it means to teach instead of do for someone for whom fame is so vital a thing. He understood the loss of Callas's instrument and the overcompensation she was forced to lean on.
This production is a subtle comment on what it is to be a performing artist. It analyzes the identical need of student and teacher for validation and success. We travel through the students' need to be special, to stand out; their insecurity, nerves and technical overconfidence. This is not a spectacle show, nor should it be considered a musical. It is an analysis of what it means to be an artist on any level.