Master Class: An Audience with Maria Callas – Smock Alley – Review
by Brian Merriman
Duration 2 hours, 30 minutes with interval
Until May 27th
I declare an interest here. My last long conversation with Terrence McNally and his Producer husband Tom Kirdahy was at ‘Master Class’ in London, which starred at their insistence, their great friend Tyne Daly. Daly is a Tony award-winning actress and a star of Broadway musical theatre. Music, though a different genre is part of her being.
Maria Callas (born 100 years ago) was immortal in opera and a tragic hero in the emerging insatiable appetite for media gossip. Dumped and humiliated by Aristotle Onassis for Jackie Kennedy, she was a shunned woman, who then went on to lose her exceptional voice.
Boy sopranos lose their voices but know something will return. Art Garfunkel lost his voice for a few years and recovered some. Callas never returned to performing.
The opportunity to be in the presence of greatness is one of the pillars of the magic of the New York art world. Terrence McNally used to pop into the back of Callas’s classes in Julliard, to learn, as I did when participating or witnessing master classes by Bernadette Greevy and Veronica Dunne. The learning and musicianship that McNally captured are authentic. He understood it. As well as being a play, it is a masterclass on vocal technique and interpretative performance.
McNally was far more than just a note-taker here, as his character study of Callas and his creation of three student roles, captures the real life of those who strive for perfection in music. The difference with a classical music career is that there are so many role models and enduring established standards of excellence, that musical artistry must include the journey to meet previous expectations, as well as to develop the personal operatic artist.
McNally is also a musical librettist and has five Tony Awards to his name. ‘The Rink’, ‘Kiss of The Spider Woman’ and ‘Ragtime’ are some of his credits and three of his plays have an operatic theme including this Tony Award winning script and ‘Lisbon Traviata’.
‘Master Class’ is about a star, an artist, whose mere presence could hush and still thousands in a theatre, whose audience awaited her every note. She was darkly dramatic, emotional, damaged and powerful. She enunciated every letter of every word and let the composer guide her. She had the world at her feet. Onassis felt he had the right to own the world and that he could buy respectability and culture with his vast wealth. The toxicity of that relationship, and the very public abandonment of the artist by him, all fueled the melancholy that became a trademark of her legacy.
Both Greevy and Dunne (who had partnered the great Kathleen Ferrier on stage) first made a student believe you were a better singer than you were, while they also imparted technique and word interpretation to the newly confident student.
Callas’s method was indifferent to the person and concentrated on the perfection of the art form. Her reputation alone generated awe. She had learned not to love anything but the music. McNally insisted a star was cast in his play and in Caitriona Ni Mhurchu, we have an actor who flawlessly delivers a lengthy and complex script, worthy of such a demanding role.
Her assured control of the rich and knowledgeable text, at times, can lack dramatic intensity, especially when she is listening to the singers. But the manner in which she paces and presents herself as a teacher throughout is hugely impressive.
Conor Hanratty’s tidy direction and Ni Mhurchu’s easy, confident engagement with the audience, ensured the Master Class setting was well presented and authentic in its staging. Each ‘student’ is there to perfect their artistry and Master Class is a glimpse into that tough journey, undergone by many a classical music student.
There is scope for more ‘drama’, especially in the entrance scene from ‘Lady Macbeth’, neither entrance was convincing. That being said, the pace throughout was fluid and with the able support of Niall Kinsella’s accomplished ‘Manny’, fine studies of Sophie (Rebecca Rodgers) and Leo Hanna’s tenor, (though Callas would not have let him away with his hand gestures), they were wholly plausible and vocally excellent. When the plot seamlessly flashes back to the life stories, it gives Ni Mhurchu the opportunity to showcase her dramatic strengths which she does in style. It is a very fine performance.
Kelli Ann Masterson gets the fullest opportunity in the writing and uses it to tremendous impact. Her vocal agility was expressive and she shone. This production of Master Class does not shy away from the immense challenges of McNally’s script and the huge shadow of Maria Callas. It is very well cast, finely staged and completely plausible in achieving the balance between the students and the Master.
It was a lovely night of opera and theatre. The soundtrack is evocative, the teaching illuminating and the interpretation authentic and engaging. McNally was right…this show needs a star and we got one in Ni Mhurchu’s beautiful diction and seemingly effortless onstage stamina.
Master Class – Written by Terrence McNally
CAST: Caitríona Ní Mhurchú as Maria Callas
Niall Kinsella, Rebecca Rodgers, Leo Hanna, Gillian Roberts and Kelli-Ann Masterson
DIRECTED BY Conor Hanratty
Produced by Smock Alley Theatre & Once Off Productions
LIGHTING & SET DESIGN BY Paul Keogan
COSTUME DESIGN BY Maree Kearns
SOUND DESIGN BY Fiona Sheil
Smock Alley Main Theatre. Runs until May 27th
Categories: Header, Theatre, Theatre Review
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