Master Class

If Opera ever had a Karen, Maria Callas was her name.

By Andrew Andrews

Sabina Balsamo and Elaine Young in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, directed by Lou Trapani for CenterStage Productions at the CENTER for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck. Photos by Rachel Karashay.

Opera singer Maria Callas became renowned across the world for her “great, ugly voice” from the early 1940s until she left the stage in the late 1960s, when her reputation for being difficult became as damaged as her voice.

In Master Class, the audience assumes the role of students filling an auditorium at the Juilliard School, where Callas led a series of master classes in the early 1970s for aspiring prima donne e oumini.

Three students (played by actors) are each given a turn on the stage to sing a piece for Madame Callas, who offers a very caustic form of constructive criticism, interspersed with shared anecdotes about the highlights of her past, and internalized flashbacks to its darker moments.

David Kent and Thomas Netter (not shown) join Sara Beth Pearson and Paul Schubert in rounding out the cast.

Despite the cast of five, Master Class feels very much like a one-woman show, with Callas’s character speaking almost nonstop and using the pianist and three students as props during a therapy session that the aging diva provides for herself.

It’s difficult to guess how Callas actually behaved during her real-life sessions, but the character is consistent with the reputation presented by the press of her time and her own admittance to expecting perfection from herself and anyone sharing her craft.

For this production, the efforts of everyone both on- and off-stage combine to deliver a most convincing portrayal of “La Divina.”

Master Class is a difficult play about a difficult person, and I think the script would be more consistently palatable if Callas’s flashbacks were presented as distinct scenes with additional actors, instead of requiring Callas to recite her recollection as a fast-paced conversation with herself.

While actor Elaine Young’s portrayal of Callas is both authentic and admirable, the highlight of the story is when operatic soprano Sara Beth Pearson is allowed to wow us with an aria: her singing not only brought chills to my spine, it even made me want to attend an actual opera (which normally puts me to sleep)!

In fact, that performance alone is reason enough to raise my overall rating of this production by one additional star.

4

Andrew Andrews attended Master Class at The Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck on Saturday, February 26, 2022 @ 8:00pm to write this review.