See review in its original context here by Lee Bemrose for Australian Stage.
Initially, I confused Maria Callas with Diamanda Galas. The latter, I thought, would be a great subject for a play. When I realised my mistake I was a little disappointed because although Maria Callas did indeed lead an eventful life and was obviously worthy of celebrating in the form of a play, I don’t really like opera. And after reading the press release properly, Master Class was going to contain some singing. Oh Dear. I wasn’t sure about this. I mean, opera, really?
Right from the start, however, this play cast a spell. It’s a loving tribute to La Divina, very funny, warm, and gives great insight into what it takes to be a great performer, to really excel at any creative vocation. I loved the writing, the acting, the structure of the story and – get this – the singing. Not ever having been to a live opera performance I have no idea why I thought I didn’t like opera. The power of this kind of singing is extraordinary, and I do believe I’ll be following up on this epiphany.
In 1971, after her career had peaked, Maria Callas conducted a series of master classes at the Julliard School in New York. Maria Mercedes takes to the stage as Maria Callas, an imposing, demanding figure oozing confidence, an acute sense of self and an enviable reserve of quips, one liners and comebacks. The character comes across as hard, driven and passionate. At times she seems more passionate about the artistic process than the feelings of her students (we, the audience, are addressed as her students), but there are moments where a couple of the students stand up against her and prove their talent when their tutor softens. You can’t be this passionate about creativity and be a complete ice queen.
As the students finally get to sing, memories are triggered, actual recordings of Maria Callas are cued in their aural sepia tones, and Maria Mercedes does a wonderful job of revealing what it was like to be Maria Callas: to grow up poor through the Second World War; of what it was like to struggle with her weight, her craft and the importance of her perfectionism. We hear of her relationship with Aristotle Onassis and of what it was like to triumph against the odds to become La Divina. It’s all quite nostalgic whilst remaining current and relevant to anyone unfortunate enough to want to succeed in the arts. These more personal, nostalgic sections are perfectly counter-balanced by the frequent laugh-out-loud ones.
And so we come to that singing. Other cast members were Cameron Thomas, kind of a piano-playing sidekick, and Georgia Wilkinson, Robert Barbaro and Anna-Louise Cole as the students in the spotlight. It was a revelation to me to be so close to fellow human beings with access to such rich, stirring vocals. Clearly there is a magical recipe of natural talent and rigorous training at play here, and these voices, mere human voices, have the power to stir emotions. It seems I don’t dislike opera as much as I thought I did.
fortyfivedownstairs was the perfect venue for this story to be told. It’s a very open space, much like a lecture auditorium, making the whole experience quite evocative of being back there, back then in the presence of La Divina.