The Tony Award-winning play Master Class, now at MetroStage, is a thrilling tribute to opera, love, passion and artistry. Playwright Terrence McNally includes the audience as part of an actual vocal session with the esteemed Maria Callas, as she shares life-lessons that extend far beyond the music. Watching such an ultimate and demanding artist at work in a beautifully crafted production is a dream come true that will leave opera-lovers and novices alike breathless for more.
The Maria Callas role is demanding and takes no prisoners and IIona Dulaski proves from her entrance that she’s up to the task. Entering,, uplifted and full of poise, Callas has total command of her environment, explicitly states her expectations and with a searing look and tone makes it clear who’s in charge. She instructs the audience, even targeting several on occasion, making sure to get undivided attention. Before the first student walks timidly on stage, we’re all unconsciously sitting a bit taller, anxiously waiting to see how she will shape and influence an operatic rendition right before our eyes.
She grooms her first student to walk across the stage to feel the message behind the music before she’s even allowed to sing the first note. And when she does, Callas pounces on each interlude to shape the sound and shares tidbits about her own rendition of the piece.
Anyone can merely sing the notes, she tells us. Callas is more interested in digging deeper, getting to the heart of life messages about strength and fortitude and sacrificing for the art.
The more Callas listens, the more the music takes her back to her own life passages that she shares with emotion, care and tenderness. As Callas, Dulaski can bark out demands and just as easily get swept away in the rapture of an aria. It’s a masterful performance.
Just as masterful are the knock-out performances by the trio of fresh young talent: two sopranos and a tenor who sing like angels—all are locally trained and worth a return visit just to relish their artistry. Emily Hanzel is the first soprano, Sophie, who has to repeat her entrance numerous times to get the nuance of her character just right. Daniel Noone is the tenor with such gorgeous tones that even Callas herself waved him along with hardly a remark.
Ayana Reed gives a knockout performance as Sharon who Callas derides for her apparel selection –Sophie’s dress is too short, Sandra’s gown is inappropriate, there is obviously no pleasing her. Sharon provides Callas with some of the dramatic tension of the piece and secured Audra McDonald a Tony in the Broadway debut. Reed hits all of her notes with astounding strength and clarity – really rocked the house, and showed her dramatic chops, too, in standing up to the demanding Diva.
closes June 11, 2017
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And then there is Callas’ nearly fanatic devotion to Onassis. The fascinating back-story is revealed in the second act with projections of the millionaire on a three-paneled screen on the top portions of the set. Her utter devotion to “Ari” even when it was not in her best interest showed her vulnerability and humanized her. The script also made it clear that no matter how much fame she attained, there was still a remnant of the chubby, ugly girl she kept struggling against that left permanent scars on her psyche that no amount of glamour, pearls or diamonds could erase. The Greek heritage she shared with Onassis and his initial interest in her kept her tied to him even as he casually tossed her aside for, well, you know the rest of Onassis’s fascinating story. Hearing it while immersed in gorgeous interludes by Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, and Vincenzo Bellini is divine.
The expert renditions of the production would not work unless all of the basic elements are in place, and that happens under the hands of the maestro himself, director Nick Olcott who sprinkles refreshing humor and fresh energy throughout while assuring perfect pitch performances. The nameless stagehand’s role, for example, played with wordless weary aplomb by Michael Sharp, is a hoot, and bringing music director Joseph Walsh into the dramatic fold adds an endearing touch. Lighting by Alexander Keen is sublime when Emily is bathed in a golden glow while Callas is simultaneously cast in dramatic shadows as she succumbs to her memories, truly a magical moment.
I can’t say enough about this exquisite production that’s got it all, including some of the most talented fresh young artists around in breakout roles. In the program notes, Producing Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin says that “Theater should expand our vision and understanding of our role in the greater universe.” Accordingly, this production’s life-messages go beyond the notes as Callas admonishes us all to Act-Feel-Be.
Master Class by Terrence McNally . Directed by Nick Olcott . Cast: Ilona Dulaski, Emily Honzel, Ayanna Reed, Daniel Noone, Joseph Walsh and Michael Sharp . Music Director: Joseph Walsh . Set design: Rhe’a Roland . Costume design: Jingwei Dai . Lighting: Alexander Keen . Sound design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith . Production stage manager David Elias . Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.
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