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Lessons from La Divina

The passion of Maria Callas thrills in Main Street Theater's Master Class.

In 2010, more than 30 years after the great Maria Callas died in 1977, fans can still buy a calendar featuring photographs of La Divina. Leonard Bernstein called her "The Bible of Opera," and her impact on the world of music and star-powered scandal has been documented in dozens of articles and books, not to mention all those still astonishing recordings of her controversial voice. And as the center of Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning Master Class, Callas makes a sparkling theatrical character, especially as played by a stunning Celeste Roberts at Main Street Theater, where the show is now thrilling lovers of any art.

Inspired by tapes of actual master classes Callas gave at the Juilliard School of Music toward the end of her career in the early '70s, McNally imagines an afternoon when Callas "instructs" three young singers on the arduous, soul-crushing work of becoming an artist. And as directed by Mark Adams, these two hours are by turns funny, provocative, mesmerizing and, most of all, inspiring.

Designed by Mark Roberts, the simple set is a large performance room. In one corner stands a baby grand piano played by the Manny (Elliot Cole), the lowly accompanist Callas both forgets and sweet-talks. In the other corner are a small wooden table and chair, at which the grand dame occasionally perches, though she is usually too invested in the music to stay seated for very long. What's left is a wide-open, utterly empty stage — empty, that is, until Callas walks into it. Once there, she fills every atom of space with her enormous personality and her devotion to the music and a life lived with passion.

It starts with her entrance, and Callas makes a very big deal out of making an entrance. She is a diva in every way, demanding the lights be turned down there, a footstool be placed here and a cushion be brought for her chair. She instructs the audience, who become part of the story — the master classes had audiences — on the importance of having a "look," pointing to various folks who all fail badly at standing out from the crowd, and we learn very quickly that standing out is something every aspiring singer needs to do. As she discusses our failures, her own self-doubts slowly rise to the surface and we begin to understand the desperate fears that drove Callas to become both a famous artist and an infamous star.

Callas's life was, in many ways, as interesting as her art, and McNally deftly stitches her history into the moments of advice she gives to her sorry little students, who come in nervous and generally leave shattered. We learn about her impoverished upbringing during WW II, when she gave up food for music lessons; her contentious relationship with her demanding mother, which eventually ended with the two of them completely estranged; and her sad love life, which included a marriage early in life to an older man and a long, tumultuous affair to a crude and often very cruel Aristotle Onassis. All this comes to life beautifully in Roberts's powerful performance, which includes aria-like monologues spoken straight out to the audience, full of sweeping emotion and enormous heart.

There is also a great deal of humor. Callas jokes about the Stagehand (Alan Hall) who doesn't appreciate her demands or her love of the music. She can't remember anybody's name, including Manny's, though she does remember that he's Jewish. She takes shots at each of her three students. And while she is not exactly cruel, she is never gentle, nor does she render her opinions with any sweetness. She explains that the world of music is impossibly hard, and that's why she is the way she is.

The music in the show comes from her students. There's Sophie (Liz Cascio), who never gets past the first note in her song. Tony (Ross A. Chitwood) is the tenor, and Callas makes great eye-rolling fun out of the silliness of tenors. And finally there's Sharon (Danica Dawn Johnston), who gets so upset over Callas's remarks about her clothes that she disappears. None of these students understands what Callas knows down to the marrow of her bones: that the music and the characters have to live onstage, and that the singers have to know what their characters want and desperately need in that moment. She tells us that having a beautiful voice is not nearly enough to make a performer great, and though Roberts only sings one short phrase through the entire play, her Callas is completely believable as the master of the music and the one true singer on the stage.

You do not need to love the opera, or even art, to love McNally's Master Class, especially this production. It is a riveting homage to the rich life — and the demands, the sacrifices and the enormous gifts that come with making meaningful work.

 
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