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MASTER CLASS (article first published : 2007-11-29; last edited : [an error occurred while processing this directive])

See two shining stars in one night - playwright Terrence McNally’s superb Master Class and Clare Mortimer as the legendary opera diva, Maria Callas.

The Playhouse Company is to be thanked for bringing Master Class back to the Playhouse Loft for a return season after its all too-short run as part of The South African Women's Arts Festival in August earlier this year. The play is again directed by Ralph Lawson and Clare Mortimer shines once again, reprising the role. She IS Maria Callas, commanding the same stage presence as the diva. Both Ralph and Clare were honoured at The Mercury Durban Theatre Awards on Monday for their fine direction and performance respectively.

The brilliantly written 1996 Tony Award winning play was inspired by the master classes the great soprano gave at the Julliard School of Music in New York towards the end of her career. The play starts with Clare Mortimer, in true Maria Callas style, striding onto the stage in a recital hall of the Julliard School and addressing her students in her master class (us the audience), silencing the applause by proclaiming "No applause. We are here to work". And work she does, imparting her experience of a lifetime in opera to three students, cajoling and bullying the best out of them, her “victims” as she calls them, with some irony there as it happens.

Interspersed in her teaching are heartfelt flashbacks to happier times, the glory days when she was the reigning Prima Donna at la Scala Milan, before she began to lose her magnificent voice and had to "persevere on nerves alone", in her words, and before she was discarded by her lover, the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, when she was the most famous singer in the world, his “Canary”.

The memory scenes are performed to a background of recordings of the real Callas in full throat. The play abounds with the cutting wit of Maria Callas and stresses the discipline and hard work it takes to make great art, explores the nature of her creativity and dedication to her art form, and offers insight to the personality behind the legend.

Credible performances are given by the three hapless students who are receiving the benefits of her master class - Thandulwazi Ncube and Khumbuzile Dhlamini, reprising their earlier roles as Sophie Dlamini and Sharon Dube - and the new addition to the cast, Sipho Langa as Thandolwenkosi Simelane. Their magnificent voices add a great deal to the play and Thandulwazi Ncube is someone to watch. Also new to the cast are Raymond Phoenix as the Stage Hand who makes the most of his brief appearances, and Juan Burgers as the pianist, Emmanuel (Manny) Weinstock. He too has his brief moments of song. Shy and self effacing he might be, but I found a lack of projection in both his singing and dialogue. He is worthy of far better.

Even if opera is not your first love, the play is well worth the ticket price, for a rich theatre experience and exceptional acting by the multi-award winning Clare Mortimer who shines, as did Jana Cilliers in the Pieter Toerien Production which was brought to the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre in July 1996.

Don't miss the opportunity to catch Master Class which runs until December 9. Tickets R70 booked through Computicket – Maurice Kort




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