Master Class (Ensemble) – theatre review

A journey through art, music, love and the finer things in life is now on at the Ensemble Theatre. Master Class is an illuminating look at the interesting life and career of Maria Callas, arguably the greatest soprano of the twentieth century.

The scene is the Julliard School of the Arts in the 1970’s. Ageing opera star Callas (Lucia Mastrantone) is sharing her tips and tricks of the opera trade via a public workshop, where rising stars can perform and hopefully receive a verbal evaluation of their craft. With her accompanist Manny (Maria Alfonsine) on piano, Maria invites participants, or as she likes to call them, ‘victims’ to come forward one at a time, present their operatic piece and then receive her words of wisdom, which will elevate their ability to new levels. That’s the idea, in principle.

In reality, the experience is daunting and disheartening. Maria is a lady of strong opinions and fixed ideas. Her classroom manner is often frustrating and focuses often on the trivial. The first two sopranos (Bridget Patterson and Elisa Colla) are interrupted by Maria even before they sing a note. Maria corrects them on their dress style, allows them to begin again, only to stop them regarding their poise. The next time it could be their mini-skirt or evening gown style of presentation. Another attempt to sing and Maria stops them regarding their diction.

A third ‘victim’ enters. This time a tenor (Matthew Reardon). He is confident and ambitious and won’t be dismissed easily. Despite Maria’s negativity, this tenor carries on regardless, forcing Maria to begrudgingly acknowledge his talent and provide words of encouragement.

Maria’s personality is her hindrance. Her comments are said with genuine intent but she lacks the empathy required for people to give respect. This character flaw permeates in Maria’s private life as well. Amidst all the participant evaluations and, accompanied by cellist Damien de Boos-Smith, we see Maria dwell on past events in her life which moulded her character. Identified at an early age of her special vocal talent, Maria is plagued by hurtful comments about her weight. During World War II, she had to reluctantly perform for German soldiers in Athens. Later, having achieved world-wide fame, she agonised constantly over industry peers allegedly trying to bring her down. Was this just something in her mind or a genuine rivalry issue?

In one of Maria’s flashback moments, we learn of her troubled marriage with Aristotle Onasis. In offering her a life of leisure, she took this as a no-confidence vote in her future operatic ability. There were also overtures of having to abort her cherished pregnancy. And one other battle was the perceived negativity of the Press towards her. Master Class, written by Terrence McNally is an amazing caricature of Maria Callas. Was she a likeable person? That is a great after-show conversation.

What is likeable though is the production and presentation of Master Class. Directed by Liesel Badorrek, the creative team and cast have made this an outstanding production. Not only is the script tight and witty, but we also get to enjoy operatic performances from Verdi, Puccini and Bellini. Costumes are colourful, staging is minimalist, lighting and sound were non-intrusive but effective.

In a role that many could not do justice to, is Lucia Mastantone as Maria Callas. She dominated every scene from her first entrance to the curtain call and enjoyed a well-deserved standing ovation. Her European dialect and mannerisms were exquisite. As an audience member, I could feel what her ‘victims’ must have been going through. That is great acting!

Mastrantone’s delivery of lines were effectively intimidating and candid. Her statement that “A man who walks in on a lady’s bath is a pig,” summed up the Maria Callas’ persona. I am told also that apparently, this is inappropriate behaviour.

Master Class is first-grade entertainment. A perfect mix of drama, humour, truth, fiction and theatrics.

Master Class by Terrence McNally plays at Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli until 20 July 2022

Paul Kiely
For more of Paul Kiely’s writings on theatre, check out Absolute Theatre

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