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Master Class review (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

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Terrence McNally’s 1995 hit Master Class, inspired by Maria Callas’ legendary series of masterclasses at New York’s Juilliard School in the early ’70s, is by no stretch of the imagination a good play.

It kicks off with Callas (Maria Mercedes) walking into the theatre with the house lights up and declaring to the audience that they are not sitting in a theatre, but this is a class room and they’re here to learn. Like most of what happens in this play, it’s excruciatingly obvious and lands with a dull thud.

There’s then a good 15 minutes of Callas stuffing around with the lights, demanding a foot stool and a cushion and talking about her struggle while her first student waits to begin. Over the course of the play, Callas puts three students through their paces: the shy but enthusiastic Sophie (Georgia Wilkinson), the confident, assured Tony (Blake Bowden), and the terrified but fiery Sharon (Teresa Duddy).

Amongst the masterclass segments — which, although drawing some dialogue from the actual classes, mostly involve Callas waxing lyrically and vaguely about the power of music and artistry — Callas leaps into her own monologues in which she travels back through her career and reveals the sacrifices she’s made as an artist.

The final climactic monologue dwells for quite a while on the singer’s inability to have children. There’s no reason to believe that was a major factor in her extraordinarily rich life, but that seems to be one of the only ways most playwrights know how to redeem a prickly, difficult female character: give her a deep longing to be a mother or have her overcome abuse.

None of this seems to develop naturally out of the interactions Callas has with her students, all of which are inconsequential. The students, as written, are little more than singing props and any sense of genuine drama is squandered. This is essentially a one-woman show and the students are just objects for her to abuse and attempt to shape in her image (despite her consistent statements that they should not imitate her).

It’s true, of course, that Callas was forthright and fearsome, but McNally turns her into a caricature of a diva, bitching about her colleagues, demanding attention from all around her and steamrolling over younger talent. In the actual masterclasses (many of which exist online), she was blunt but patient and eager to help her students with practical, specific, technical advice. A peaceful and realistic masterclass mightn’t be the most compelling piece of theatre, but there has to be a happy medium between what actually happened and this trashy melodrama.

Much of what occurs in McNally’s script borders on ridiculous. It’s beyond heightened; McNally attempts to establish the play as a piece of realism (with some abstract flourishes) and then subsequently abandons any sense of logic. All three of the students are entirely unprepared for the masterclass. One actually says to Callas (always known as one of the opera world’s greatest actors): “I’m not an actress, I’m just a singer”. Another, who is an experienced singer with a Bachelor and a Masters Degree in singing, performs Cavaradossi’s first act aria from Tosca, despite not knowing the most basic dramatic context to the song.

In this production, director Daniel Lammin digs deep for drama, but mostly comes up dry. Its greatest asset, by fair, is Maria Mercedes’ forceful, engrossing performance as Callas. Her characterisation is dead-on, right down to the carefully studied gestures, even if it could be a little more emotionally nuanced.

Georgia Wilkinson, Blake Bowden and Terese Duddy try their hardest to elevate the material as her three students. They sing gorgeously, but these are two-dimensional characters constantly bound to play second fiddle to the hurricane force of Callas.

Cameron Thomas is charmingly dorky as the accompanist Manny and provides superb musical support to the singers, conjuring up great dramatic intensity on the piano.

Master Class seems to have been consistently saved by two factors throughout its 20-year life: the enduring fascination of opera fans with La Divina and legendary performers in the leading role. Those two factors are not enough to make an exciting piece of theatre, even when they’ve been amplified. The only way this piece could really work would be if a drag queen were playing Callas, such is the camp, diva extravagance of McNally’s Callas. But most drag queens are capable of coming up with wittier acerbic repartee off the top of their heads than the lines McNally has written.

Master Class is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until August 30

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