Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., June 1, 2001
Master Class: Small Handbag, Huge Aura
Zachary Scott Theatre Center,
through June 10
Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min
It is painfully clear in Terence McNally's play Master Class that Maria Callas was just a vestige of her former self when she gave a series of master classes on operatic singing back in the early 1970s, when this play takes place. But what a vestige! Once "La Divina," this opera superstar wowed the masses in the 1950s and 1960s with her performances and kept peers and public astonished with her behind-the-scenes antics. Truly a diva for the ages. It is also painfully clear that Maria Callas was beset by a life's worth of opera-scale demons: her battle with her weight; her marriage to a wealthy, much older man; her public and (personally) devastating affair with Aristotle Onassis; and the gradual loss of her voice. That voice -- Callas used it to incredible effect in a litany of the most famous female roles in opera: Lucia, Medea, Lady Macbeth, Norma, Tosca. No singing statue she, Callas triumphed by putting the theatricality back into singing. Her flair and emotional connection, and that voice, combined to push her characterizations into something immediate and awesome, changing the way singers have approached the performance of opera ever since.
This Callas of the master classes offers plenty of wit and wisdom about the world of international opera in which she no longer participates, but it is the weight of the past, her personal baggage, that makes her story so compelling. As the Callas of this Zachary Scott Theatre Center production, Lisa Bansavage is exceptional, entering the space with a small handbag and huge aura. Whether bantering with the audience or berating her students, Bansavage is charming, funny, and imposing -- but then, she's La Divina. As she works on her pupils, more and more of Callas' personal life is revealed, and Bansavage navigates that rich, troubled history with aplomb. It is a problem with the script that it must rely so heavily on illustrating Callas' misery: The ends of both acts are given to long monologues that climax with Callas' confrontations with Onassis. The first act's conclusion works better than the second's, and Bansavage is equal to the emotional challenges of each, but neither is as dramatically satisfying as watching Bansavage recall, cajole, enthuse, fall in love, and teach in her live interactions with students and audience. The best parts of Master Class are in the classroom, not in Callas' regurgitated memory.
Director Ann Ciccolella has once again coached her company to give warm, full performances. The varied sensibilities of students Jill Blackwood as Sophie, Tami Swartz as Sharon, and Nicholas Rodriguez as Tony as to who they are and where their careers might lead offer excellent foils to Callas' recollections and advice; their singing is quite fine, too. As Accompanist and Stagehand, respectively, Kyle Sigrest and David R. Jarrott add to the slight unreality of the diva's presence in our midst: the former in awe, the latter could care less.
Throughout the evening, there is an endless, high-pitched whine. It emanates from a trio of designer John Williams' high tech lighting instruments, which aren't really used to any effect that an old-fashioned, analog lighting instrument couldn't achieve. Given the excruciating attention to detail that Ms. Callas demanded of herself and her students, this seems an odd detail to overlook since it is especially audible during the most beautiful, introspective moments of the play. What would La Divina have had to say about that?