Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Lara Goetsch.
Is it possible to teach greatness? Can a master instructor work the miracle of bringing technical virtuosity into the realm of brilliance? Can you teach art? These are questions I found myself pondering after witnessing Timeline Theatre’s new production of Terrence McNally’s 1995 Master Class, directed by Nick Bowling with music direction by Doug Beck, now playing at Stage 773. In this fictionalized account of a master class in operatic singing based on real ones the great Maria Callas taught at Julliard, the diva demands of her students not merely technical perfection, but heart. She finds herself both frustrated and inspired by her young charges as their work draws her back into memories of her own successes and failures.
Janet Ulrich Brooks, recently seen at Timeline as Queen Elizabeth in last year’s The Audience, puts on a masterful performance, portraying Callas as a driven and demanding teacher who is overwhelmingly protective of the music. She cannot abide someone who “just sings” it; she wants them to feel it, to understand it, to become one with it. And she believes that the composer put everything you need to know in order to achieve this right into the score. But despite all of this, Brooks’ Callas is funny, bantering with the audience about things she considers important. Having “a look” is one of them; she says that there isn’t anyone in the audience who has one. Making an entrance that takes over the stage is another, as she forcefully demands of one of her students (Keirsten Hodgens).
Hodgens and the two other students we see, tenor Eric Anthony Lopez and soprano Molly Hernandez, are excellent singers, as each of them has opportunity to prove during the “class.” (Stephen Boyer plays the accompanist, Manny.) But it isn’t just great voices that Callas wants. Harkening back to her own career, she wants to help these students find the thing beyond the voice: the subtexts, the emotions, the understanding that turn a good singer into an artist. To that end, she pushes and even bullies them as she walks them through what she believes they need to do, using herself as an example to show them what she demands.
At this stage of her life, the real Callas’s voice was much less than what it had been, and here sound designer Andrew Hansen makes excellent use of old recordings of the diva as Callas, onstage, remembers her stardom. Bowling’s staging is outstanding as he makes use of every inch of Arnel Sancianco’s beautiful piano-shaped music hall set. Even the door (part of the rear stage wall) is used well, both for the “entrances” and for the comic appearances of Raymond Hutchinson as a stagehand. Lighting designer Jessica Neill provides some lovely moments as Callas retreats into memories of her former glory and of her marriages to Giovanni Battista Meneghini and Aristotle Onassis. And Sally Dolembo’s costumes perfectly capture what McNally’s script calls for.
As we watch more and more of this “master class,” we also begin to ponder the things that we as audiences ourselves demand from performers. Even a singer of Callas’s greatness suffered during her career from critics who did not find her techniques as appealing as some of her “rivals.” And it is clear from her memories that her personal life was never as emotionally satisfying as she may have wanted. (In an era when we expect the divorces of famous artists, is that any surprise? And how much of it can be blamed on the pressure that the artist feels to maintain his or her genius?)
The show is engaging and entertaining, as is Brooks’ performance. As much as she insists upon perfection from her students (and, for that matter, the audience), Callas here is a real person, years after her retirement, attempting one last time to rekindle in others the spark that once could light up the night. And Brooks is entirely sympathetic. It hurts Callas when the students don’t get what she is trying to give them. When one student leaves, apparently broken by her criticism, Brooks shows us that, perhaps despite herself, Callas sympathizes with her.
Nick Bowling may have been the perfect director for this production. He and Beck know how to get performances of the highest level from this cast and also how to help them to find the subtle issues that Callas can feel the need to work with. The result is something that even a non-opera-aficionado such as I found entrancing. When the singers “get it right,” they transport us to some other plane. And despite the many passionate monologues from Brooks, there is no moment in the play as emotionally wrenching as the nearly wordless one in which the self-righteous diva recognizes that, despite his utterly indifferent attitude toward that which she believes to be crucial, tenor Lopez is capable of an aria that can take her breath away. His approach may be anathema to her, but it’s easy to believe that she sees something of her own reckless past—doing things the way she believed—in his performance. Ultimately, his philosophy and temperament are as egotistical as hers, and though the play wants us to believe Callas is right, it’s hard to argue with results.
Her work here with Hodgens solidifies that notion. Though Sharon, the young soprano Hodgens plays, gets stronger and stronger under her tutelage (and in fact delivers some beautiful singing in her own right), Callas knows that, in the end, the character just doesn’t have it, whatever “it” might be. And Sharon does not graciously accept the criticism. Perhaps that is in fact what being an artist means: believing deeply in your own abilities no matter what anyone tells you. Young Maria Callas, often criticized for being overweight, knew that as well as anyone. Her frustration here is in fact the discovery that she cannot impart to her students that mysterious quality of heart she believes is so essential. Perhaps they can get along without it. Sharon complains that she is, after all, a singer and not an actress. But Callas strongly believes that great art involves both. And she was the great artist who proved the point.
Master Class is a Timeline Theatre production now playing at the Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago until Dec 9. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.