"Art is domination. It's making people think, for one moment in time, there's only one art, one voice, and that's yours," declares opera star Maria Callas (Rosemary Prinz) in Master Class. Callas was not simply a talented singer and a beautiful woman; she was a diva. It is the ability to single oneself out that distinguishes the diva from the famous, even the revered. A diva (appropriately derived from the Latin divus, meaning god or deity) elevates herself toward divinity on a golden chain of her own making. In the case of Callas, that chain was her voice. Callas' voice was not a tool, it was an instrument, and for a while, it was a flawless one. She was known as the greatest soprano in the world. Later when her voice broke down -- through her own recklessness, critics allege -- she spent the better part of her career trying to hide the damage.
Terrence McNally chose to reveal Maria Callas at an interesting time in her life: when she was in her early forties and had lost her voice. Her career was in ruins, and the love of her life, Aristotle Onassis, had dumped her for the most famous woman in the world, Jacqueline Kennedy. The classroom often is the final stage for great artists, and Callas was no exception. Master Class is set in 1971, when Callas chose to pass her passions on to students by giving master classes at the famed Juilliard School of Music. While Master Class is not a solo performance, it definitely is a one-woman show. It must be. Despite a sometimes unforgivably clichéd script, Prinz renders a portrait of the opera diva that is moving and psychologically complex.
The plays opens with Callas making a grand entrance. The audience automatically applauds, and we realize we are part of a play -- a clever way of introducing the premise of Master Class. "I don't see anyone out there who has a look," she announces while peering out at the audience. A play like this demands a strange alchemy from its leading actress: She must appear very real and at the same time larger than life. And this is what Prinz bestows upon her marathon role. As we have learned from other Coconut Grove Playhouse productions, such as Eleanor and Goodbye, My Friduchita, any enigmatic portrait risks being fragmented and losing its coherence because it must explore so many unexpected corners of the human psyche. Fortunately Master Class' premise and music keep it grounded and continuous.
One of the most interesting aspects of Callas' life that is explored here is her relationship with Greek tycoon Onassis. As she herself says, "I was a great ballerina dancing for a blind man." A woman of unshakable discipline, determination, and pure grit, Callas was at one point willing to give up the thing she loved most, her career, to please a man who responds to her plea for love with, "Have a child of mine. I only give my love to them." Sitting upstage right, legs parted, invisible cigar in hand, Prinz spits out the guttural and gritty tones of Onassis: "I give you my thick, uncircumcised, Greek dick. You give me class." Then she switches to an almost incredulous little-girl voice: "Please, Ari, don't talk like that." To see this degree of submission from the same woman who went from being an overweight ugly duckling to the reigning soprano in the world by sheer nerve and dedication is chilling.
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Prinz's voice is strong, but her real talent is her use of gesture and characterization. The temptation of a role with such dramatic content for a less mature actress would be to wave frantically, scream, and throw herself around the stage. Prinz is an energetic actress and is appropriately physical for the part. Each action synchronizes with her words and the situation of the moment. Two flashbacks to La Scala are vivid and powerful, accompanied by the exquisite lighting and lucid projections of Kirk Bookman. In these scenes she often is on her knees, self-contained and supplicant, hands clenched together as opposed to the aggressive body language she takes on when working with her students.
Prinz's attention to detail also gives continuity to the portrait. She shuffles her papers and sets her bug-eyed glasses on her nose, asking each student the same question: "Are you nervous?" It is this sort of detail that grounds the character and keeps the performance from seeming just that -- a performance, a wild display of emotion and talent without any control.
The actress' interpretation is not as primal perhaps as some of her predecessors (Zoe Caldwell and Patti LuPone), but she portrays a Callas who is fiery in the truest sense of the word. She herself has become fire through warming herself to it, swallowing it, breathing it, and being burned by it. From her childhood, when she often chose hunger rather than give up voice lessons, to her professional life, when she held up under costumes that weighed more than she did, Prinz's Callas displays her hard-earned pride and arrogance as well as her loneliness and outrage. All these personality traits flow into Prinz's portrayal like tributaries into the Nile. Ultimately she is queenly and elegant; she's not of this world, as her students (or perhaps victims) certainly realize. In fact this is where much of the dramatic movement of the play lies: in the dialogues with the students. Even the opera-resistant can't help but be moved by these highly trained voices under the tutelage of a master like Callas. To see the transformation that takes place when a master unites with a talented student is one of the jewels of Class.
The play gains momentum as Callas develops relationships with the other characters. She establishes an immediate rapport with Manny, her accompanist (Darren Motise): "Is it OK if I call you Manny? And you must call me Madame." This character, although usually silent, is on stage almost as much as Callas, providing a much-needed psychological and aesthetic balance (as do so many other intelligent maneuvers by McNally). Clean-cut, quiet, and good natured, Manny is the base to Callas' acid.
This production benefits from the experience of both Motise, who has previously played this role on Broadway, and Lorraine Goodman, who has performed the role of student Sharon more than 100 times on Broadway with Caldwell, LuPone, and Dixie Carter.
One student, "Tight Pants" Tony, a tenor played by Eric Van Hoven, learns the importance of knowing with whom you've just slept before breaking into song. In one of the most stirring moments of the play, Tony belts out Puccini's "Recondita Armonia" while Callas coaches him and reminds him that his opera character has just made love all night to his sweetheart and is now painting a portrait of her in song. There also are comical moments, as is the case with the first soprano student, Sophie (Kate Coffman), whose desperate attempt to follow Callas' instructions ("Never move your hand unless you can follow it with your heart and soul") has almost slapstick results. Chubby and dressed from head to toe in pink, Sophie responds by looking hypnotically at the audience and awkwardly holding her hand up as if it were a prosthesis.
There are some weak moments as well. If there were a new daily-meditation book called Affirmations in High C or Sopranos Anonymous, some of the lines from Master Class would be shoo-ins. Sometimes McNally's love for Callas gets in the way of his writing, and we are left with aphorisms better suited to a TV movie. Clichés about the sacrifice of artists and about living passionately render the first half of the first act a bit dull. Likewise generalizations such as "I have to think that we've made the world a better place, that we've left it richer and wiser through our art" give the ending a perfunctory tone.
On the other hand, lines such as, "Vowels are the inarticulate sounds the heart makes; consonants give them meaning" and "It's not a note we're after here. It's the stabbing pain of loss" leave us with no doubt about McNally's mastery of the language and keen insight into the art about which he's writing.
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