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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

MASTER CLASS (article first published : 2007-11-14)

Back by popular demand following sold out mid-year performances, The Playhouse Company’s production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class returns to the Playhouse Loft.

Directed by Ralph Lawson, one of South Africa’s leading stage luminaries, the production stars multi-award winning Durban actress, Clare Mortimer, in the play’s pivotal role of the legendary 20th century opera star, Maria Callas.

Winner of the 1996 Tony Award for Best Play, Master Class offers audiences a rich theatre experience in which the legendary opera star Maria Callas is brought tempestuously back to life. Inspired by a series of master classes the great diva conducted at the Juilliard School of Music in New York towards the end of her career, the drama puts Callas at centre stage again, as she coaxes, prods, and inspires students (“victims” as she calls them) into giving the performance of their lives while revealing her own.

Through a series of flash backs, we experience Callas’s long-gone days as a reigning Prima Donna at la Scala Milan, her marriage to Meneghini, and her great, doomed love for the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. But the dazzling theatricality comes from Callas’s emotional exploration of her own cutting wit, and from the soaring music as each student sings an aria that exposes La Divina’s vulnerabilities and her genius…

The play’s press testifies to its international reputation. The Philadelphia Enquirer hailed the work as “a play of notable wit, humanity and insight.” The Wall Street Journal called the piece “McNally’s best script so far, sparkling, rich, mercurial”, while The Los Angeles Times opined that “McNally’s love letter succeeds brilliantly.” The New York Times gave it an unequivocal thumbs-up: "For McNally, the play demonstrates his ability to create rich, vivid, satisfying theater… Master Class is an unembarrassed, involving meditation on Callas' life and the nature of her art. Such subjects are not easily dramatized, certainly not with this brio." Likewise The Hollywood Reporter: "Master Class will be talked about for years to come whenever people point to theater experiences that genuinely deserve to be labeled by the overused word ‘great’”.

The audience finds themselves present as Callas teaches a master class. She's glamorous, commanding, larger than life—and drop-dead funny. An accompanist sits at the piano. Callas' first "victim" is Sophie, a ridiculous, overly-perky soprano, dressed all in pink. Sophie chooses to sing one of the most difficult arias, the sleepwalking scene from La Sonnambula, an aria that Callas sang to wide acclaim. Before the girl sings a note, Callas stops her—she clearly can't stand hearing music massacred. And now what has started out as a class has become a platform for Callas. She glories in her own career, dabbles in opera dish and flat-out seduces the audience. Callas gets on her knees and acts the entire aria in dumb show, eventually reducing the poor singer to tears. But with that there are plenty of laughs going on, especially between Callas and the audience. Callas pulls back and gives Sophie a chance to use what she's learned. As soon as Sophie starts singing, though, Callas mentally leaves the room and goes into a sprawling interior monologue about her own performance of that aria and the thunderous applause she received at La Scala. Callas wakes up and sends Sophie off with a pat.

The next two sessions repeat the same dynamic, only the middle session is with a tenor who moves Callas to tears. She again enters her memories and we learn about Callas' affair with Aristotle Onassis; an abortion she was forced to have; her first elderly husband whom she left; her early days as an ugly duckling; the fierce hatred of her rivals, and the unforgiving press that savaged her at first.

Finally, we meet Sharon, another soprano, who arrives in a full ball gown. With Sharon singing, Callas is genuinely moved, for the young singer has talent, but Callas tells her to stick to flimsy roles. Sharon is devastated and spits back every nasty thing you've ever heard about Callas: She's old, washed up; she ruined her voice too early in her career; she only wants people to worship her, etc. Sharon rushes out of the hall, and Callas brings the class to a close with a beautiful speech about the sacrifices we must make in the name of art.

Support casting for The Playhouse Company’s return season includes Juan Burgers, Khumbuzile Dhlamini, Thandulwazi Ncube, Sipho Langa and Raymond Phoenix.

Master Class runs in the Playhouse Loft from November 28 to December 9 from Tuesdays to Saturdays at 19h00 (matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 15h00). Tickets R70 booked at Computicket or the Playhouse Company’s box office, on 031 369 9540/9596. The production is subject to an age restriction of 16 years.




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