The Tony award winning play, Master Class, by Terrence McNally takes place in the early seventies at Julliard, the prestigious arts school in New York. Maria Callas, a widely renowned opera singer, known for her bel canto technique, is now a teacher. She is the focus of the play, supremely played by Amelia Broome, an ambitious role for a New Rep debut. Broome is stunning, severe, and pitiable all at the same time, embodying the decline of a diva who refuses to pass the torch to younger singers. She finds fault with everything the students do, but through it we witness her reveries of past triumphs and disappointments.
During flashbacks actual recordings of Madam Callas are played, leaving the actress free to perform dialog between Callas and Aristotle Onassis. Callas, like Onassis, is proudly Greek, and a larger than life character. Broome plays the role of Onassis with swagger and that of Callas with a mixture of innocence and arrogance, making for a very complex interaction. Yes, the same man that was consort to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, and eventual husband, was with Maria Callas, for years, but never married her. Some purport the whole sorted affair plays like a Greek tragedy. Her imperious behavior in the classroom melts away during these reveries revealing an intense, lovelorn, neglected, broken woman who has nothing but her devotion to a man who doesn’t love her, the discipline of her art, and the memory of public acclaim. “Now in the twilight of her career, …she reflects on her life, reliving theatrical artistic and painful intimate disappointments.”
The diva’s trite pronouncements about discipline and art are both touchingly humorous – in the vein of when I was a kid we walked to school without shoes up hill both ways – and uninspiringly true, as I myself have known operatic singers who didn’t necessarily know the libretto or what they were singing about – kind of like William Shatner learning a whole script in Esperanto, but having no idea what he was saying. I agree with Callas’ edict that context does count for something, and without it, the technician remains a technician never rising to the level of artist.
The fierce attacks on the students are countered with melodramatic sentimentality in the recounting of Callas’ private life reflecting a sad and lonely person who can’t let go of past glory. All of the angst and arrogance is summed up in one moment when the diva cannot reach a note that the young soprano can. The sentimental layers are pulled away tenderly and with humor by Broome and the ensemble. Under the hard shell, and gushy nougat, at her core, Callas is a vulnerable afflicted woman.
The evening ended with the actors commending the audience for coming out to support the production and a call to action for OneFund. The actors and the audience were all very aware that we were suspending disbelief on many levels. The play is a phenomenal character study, and some of the philosophical commentary about it being unsafe in the real world rang all the truer because of the circumstances. Collectively, we were working through the fact that Watertown had been under siege not twenty-four hours earlier. This should have been the last performance of Master Class, the “Tony Award winning story of Maria Callas’ ambition and stardom,” but because of the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber, there would be one final make-up performance on Sunday night.
MASTER CLASS Company
Cast (in alphabetical order)
Darren Anderson, Tony
Amelia Broome*, Maria
Michael Caminiti, Stagehand
Lindsay Conrad, Sharon
Brendon Shapiro*, Manny
Erica Spyres*, Sophie
John Traub, Set Designer
Stacey Stephens, Costume Designer
Chris Brusberg, Lighting Designer
David Reiffel, Sound Designer
Phill Madore*, Stage Manager