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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 : 2007-08-8)

If you see nothing else this year in terms of dramatic work, see Master Class which forms part of The Playhouse Company’s South African Women’s Arts Festival.

Written by Terrence McNally, this acclaimed play is a superb piece of writing about the legendary opera singer Maria Callas – dubbed La Divina – who was also acknowledged for her strong dramatic talent. Winner of the 1996 Tony Award for Best Play, it is inspired by a series of master classes conducted by the great diva at the Juilliard School of Music in New York towards the end of her career. Master Class places the audience in the role of the students, from whose ranks (and seated amongst us) are the three aspirant singers she singles out. As the diva pulls her “next victim” onto the stage - all the while bemoaning a lack of suitable lighting, the need for a footstool to reach a chair that’s too high as well as a cushion for its seat - she puts her subjects through their paces.

Forthright and outspoken personality that she is, Callas interacts closely with the singers - in one case barely allowing one poor incumbent to utter more than a single note before stopping her. Musical phrases, extracts from the libretti and historical details about their chosen operatic pieces, trigger memories that have coloured her life.

Clare Mortimer presents her usual excellent, well-thought-out and intelligent portrayal of her character. Described by conductor Richard Bonynge (CBE) as having a “colossal voice”, Maria Calls was born and raised in New York, received her musical education in Greece, sang mainly in Italian, was married to Italian industrialist Giovanni Battide Meneghini and had a much-publicised relationship with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Her accent was therefore a mildly chaotic transatlantic mix which Clare has managed to pull off well.

Callas was known for her glamorous dress sense. With clanking gold bangles and looking stunning in an elegant Neil Stuart-Harris creation that flows with her as she strides around the stage, Clare does full justice to the script. Callas disarms, destroys, exhorts and cajoles her students while offering pithy remarks about the operatic characters they are playing. She’s also not averse to throwing in the odd bitchy comment about other operatic stars!

The three hapless students are nicely portrayed by Thandulwazi Ncube, no stranger to Durban audiences, and up and coming singers Khumbuzile Dlamini (a great talent to watch!) and Mhlaba Buthelezi. Robert Petersen makes an amusing stage hand.

Director Ralph Lawson’s touch allows a fine theatrical performance from Clare while allowing the singers, whose musical skills are obviously more advanced than their dramatic ones, to blend seamlessly into the mix. Having shown his flair for ironic humour in Brutal Tunes, Andrew Warburton is a delight as the laconic long-suffering accompanist whose name Callas keeps forgetting.

Irek Karamon has created an effective set, using wooden panels that complement The Loft’s natural surroundings and Richard Parker’s clean clear lighting design adds to the dramatic impact. My only problem is that Clare is not always audible when speaking above tracks of recordings of Maria Callas’s performances. Either vocal or technical adjustments need to be made here.

The joy of Master Class is that while it offers an accurate insight into singers’ training and the workings of theatre and opera, Terrence McNally has written a hugely entertaining play that can be enjoyed to the full whether you know anything or nothing about opera, Maria Callas or singing in general. The diva’s comments like “You must have a look”, “Don’t wear anything like that before midnight” … “Even drinking water, I have presence” … “An entrance is everything” … and “I was never young. I couldn’t afford to be” have relevance in any level of society!

Master Class will have three more performances in the Loft Theatre on August 8 at 19h00 and August 11 at 15h00 and 19h00. Tickets R70. The production is subject to an age restriction of 16 years. Book through Computicket or on 031-369 9456. – Caroline Smart




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