See review in its original context here by Bradley Storer for Theatre Press.
Intimate and involving theatre
Terrence McNally’s Master Class, a play about the life of Greek opera singer Maria Callas whose artistry and career revolutionised the landscape of 20th century opera, comes to fortyfivedownstairs with the brilliant Maria Mercedes as the tragic diva.
The intimate theatre space at fortyfivedownstairs is perfect for the play set as a masterclass in the twilight of Callas’s career, the era signalled effectively by the 70’s fashion worn by the cast. Mercedes enters the room with an air of quiet authority, an iron fist wrapped in silk, taking charge of the stage and the accompanist (Cameron Thomas) in short order. Mercedes is the embodiment of the word ‘diva’ – narcissistic, commanding and uncompromising but with such charisma and a depth of artistic integrity that it is easier to see how this figure still fascinates today. Mercedes manages to find the undercurrents of charm, self-deprecation and kindness in the character which also make her surprisingly likeable.
The three students who Callas teaches over the course of the play are all equally as brilliant – Robert Barbaro as the sole male participant Tony brings a potent masculine swagger and a heart-meltingly beautiful tenor to the role. Anna-Louise Cole as Sharon, the only student with the guts to stand up to the opera superstar, radiates a subdued determination which rises to the surface as she faces off against Callas – her dramatic soprano is showcased to jaw-dropping effect in an tremendously difficult aria from Verdi’sMacbeth. The best of the lot is Georgia Wilkinson as Sophie, a bubbly coloratura soprano, and Wilkinson plays her so winningly that it is hard to take your eyes off her, even when she is simply standing side stage observing Callas.
As she watches her students singing roles she herself made famous, Callas is drawn into internal monologues of operatic proportions, brutally delving into the depths of her poverty-stricken childhood, her ill-fated love affair with Aristotle Onassis, the demons of self-doubt, bitterness and adolescent insecurity which swirl into implosive arias of painful triumph and gut-wrenching loss.
At the end of the master class, Callas stands alone, reflecting to the audience on the simultaneous joy and loneliness of a life devoted to art, saying that she will be satisfied if she has had an effect on even a single person – it’s hard to imagine how anyone could leave this masterfully directed play without feeling affected by the soul of this great artist.