MSP Mag Review: Master Class is Masterful and Classy

MSP Mag Tad Simons


If you are any kind of theater buff, by now you’ve heard that Theatre Latte Da’s production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class, starring Sally Wingert as the legendary opera diva Maria Callas, has been extended through November 9.

“Popular demand” is always the reason given for such extensions, but the reasons for the demand in this case are twofold: First and foremost is Sally Wingert’s stellar performance as Callas, arguably the most influential opera singer of the 20th century; second is the crafty way in which the play makes opera accessible by linking it to other modes of artistic expression in general.

Master Class is based on a series of seminars Callas gave at Juilliard in 1971. For an extra layer of verisimilitude, the play is being staged in MacPhail Center for Music’s Antonello Hall, where similar classes are given to the students at MacPhail. In a “master class,” a guest artist is invited to observe several students—typically the best ones, hand-picked by their teachers—and offer a critique. Some artists are very good at these classes, doling out praise and guidance in equal measure, with firm but supportive advice for the students, and a generosity of spirit that leaves everyone feeling inspired.

Wingert’s Callas is not one of these teachers.

Callas is there reluctantly. It’s clear she thinks doing such classes is a bit beneath her. Furthermore, she doesn’t quite know how to communicate what she knows about the art of singing—at least not in the technical sense. But this inability to talk about music and opera in ways that other people understand them is what propels the play forward. In trying to explain what she means when she declares, “It’s all in the music!,” the play peels back the layers of Callas’s psyche to reveal her inner struggle as an artist and human being. Yes, the dialogue is about music, but it is more importantly about art and life. All the advice that Callas gives can be applied to other types of art, because what she is really talking about is total and utter commitment to the work—the sort of commitment that great artists have and others don’t—as well as the rewards and sacrifices of a life subsumed by art.

No doubt true opera fans will have a few bones to pick about how Wingert portrays Callas, but the rest of us are free to simply enjoy it. During the lessons, Wingert’s Callas is a hilariously caustic scold who belittles the students (her “victims”) with matter-of-fact observations about their dress and manner. She confuses the students by appearing to be more concerned about how they enter the stage and hold their hands than she is about how they use their voice. But there is method in her madness, because, as she explains, “anyone can sing the notes”—the hard part is finding the connective tissue between the notes, the composer, and historical lineage of artistry that led to the moment of the music’s creation—when the composer was, for all intents and purposes, “god.”

Wingert’s performance isn’t all barbs and laughs, though. In the quieter, more reflective moments of the play, she channels Callas’s fragility—particularly later in life, when her voice was declining and her romance with Aristotle Onassis was falling apart—and reveals the sensitivity and vulnerability beneath the larger-than-life bombast of the diva.

Another factor that makes Master Class well worth seeing (if you can get a ticket) is that the actual music sung by the students is excellent and moving all on its own. Kira Lace Hawkins, Kelsey Stark D’Emilio, and Benjamin Dutcher all deliver exquisite mini performances that are all the more engaging because one rarely gets to hear actual opera singers so up close and personal, in a space as acoustically perfect as MacPhail’s Antonello Hall. Director Peter Rothstein must be credited for this added layer of magic, proving once again that his genius with musical material is apparent no matter how large or small the stage.

BWW Reviews: In Theater Latte Da's Magnificent Production of MASTER CLASS, Sally Wingert Embodies the Legendary Maria Callas

Broadway WorldBy Jill Schafer October 14, 2014

I don't know opera, and I don't believe I had ever heard the name Maria Callas before seeing Theater Latte Da's Master Class. But I have been educated. I now know that Maria Callas was one of the most talented, dedicated, and fascinating artists of the 20th century. Her paintbrush was her voice, her canvas was the stage, her creation was opera. She sacrificed everything for her art, and had very strong opinions about what art is and what it isn't. She shared those opinions in a series of master classes at Julliard in the early '70s. Playwright Terrence McNally used those classes as the backdrop against which to tell the story of who this woman was in his 1996 Tony-winning play. Her attitude towards art may not lead to the healthiest and happiest of lifestyles, but it does in some cases lead to some exquisite art, both in her singing, and in this magnificent production by Theater Latte Da.

The brilliance of this play is that it's constructed as a music school lecture, with Maria Callas as the instructor and we, the theater audience, as her audience. This allows her to speak directly to us, which is a bit terrifying as she's not an easy teacher, but also extremely engaging as it immediately draws us into the world of the play. Maria takes the stage and begins imparting to us her wealth of knowledge about opera and show business in general, gained from thirty years of performing at the best opera houses in the world. One by one she calls three students in to instruct them as we watch, teaching them that it's about more than just the singing, you have to feel every emotion. Through her direct instruction to the audience, her harsh critiques of her students (that is really more about her than them), and through flashbacks or memories of certain trying times in her life (including her relationship with Aristotle Onassis), we get a clear picture of who this woman was, and it's quite fascinating. She was the type of person for whom the word diva was invented, but it was all at the service of her art.

I'm feel like I'm running out of words to describe Sally Wingert's performances. She recently won an Ivey for not one but four brilliant performances over the last year, all of which I saw and loved. And yet she continues to amaze meeach time I see her. How does she do it? She has created so many very different, complex, fascinating, layered, real women. Sally absolutely commands the stage as Maria Callas; she's strong, opinionated, funny, vulnerable, and so present. When you watch Sally you don't feel like you're watching a performance, you feel like you're watching a person. Maria would approve of Sally, she doesn't "act," she "feels," she "is." I felt like I was attending a very important lecture about art and life, and I should be taking notes. I'm not sure who was giving the lecture, Maria Callas, or Sally Wingert, or director Peter Rothstein, who does another beautiful job with this production. Likely it's some delicious combination of all three.

As commanding as Sally is, she's not the only one on stage. With her the whole time is music director Andrew Bourgoin as accompanist Manny. I was lucky enough to be sitting near the front on the piano side of the stage, where I could watch his hands bouncing off the keys or softly caressing them. As Manny, he also provides a nice foil for Maria, mostly listening quietly and occasionally interrupting reluctantly to keep things on track. Kira Lace Hawkins, in Jan Brady hair, has a nice turn as student Sophie, with a voice as rich, smooth, and delicious as melted chocolate. Opera singers Benjamin Dutcher and Kelsey Stark O'Emilio also lend their gorgeous voices to the roles of eager students Anthony and Sharon.

Theater Latte Da could not have picked a better location for this play. Antonello Hall at the MacPhail Center for Music is a gorgeous, high-ceiling, pristine, sparsely furnished room that was built for sound. One of my favorite things that Maria says is "I don't believe in microphones, people have forgotten how to listen, if you can't hear me it's your fault." No amplification is necessary in this space with these trained artists, and the sound is exquisite. I also appreciated the costumes (by Willene Mangham). They definitely have a '70s vibe, but it's subtle and doesn't overpower the simple directness of the story.

Theater Latte Da's Master Class is everything. It's funny, completely engaging, poignant, touching, entertaining, and features beautiful music. In short, a smart, funny, clever, meaningful play, sublimely executed by Theater Latte Da. Head to the MacPhail Center for Music in downtown Minneapolis between now and November 2 to experience this exquisite production.

I'll leave you with a quote from Maria Callas: "The only thanks I ask is that you sing properly and honestly." A great motto for not just art, but life.

Sally Wingert Shines as the Core of Master Class

City PagesBy Ed Huyck October 14, 2014

While talking about performing with Theatre Latte Da in Master Class last week, Sally Wingert said she would would do "Mary Had a Little Lamb" if director Peter Rothstein was in charge. It's safe to say that I -- or any theatergoer -- would definitely pay to see Wingert read an evening of children's verse. Heck, I'd come out for a night of dramatized eBay listings for refurbished auto parts if Wingert was involved.

The tremendously talented Wingert towers above Master Class, playing famed opera diva Maria Callas with tremendous wit, verve, and power.

Her strong performance, however, showcases the weaknesses in Terrance McNally's script, which is more clever than insightful, and struggles to get under the surface of this intriguing character.

During the 1950s and '60s, Callas cut a swath through the opera world and the upper reaches of European and American societies. Bold, opinionated, and extremely talented, Callas was as known for her fiery temperament and affair with Aristotle Onassis as she was for her performances in Tosca, Norma, and Macbeth.

McNally based the play on a series of master classes that Callas gave in 1971 and '72 at Julliard. Through the play, she works with a trio of singers, though the scenes are as much about her and her stories as the singers she is "helping" onstage.

While she's onstage (and talking) throughout, we only get clues from McNally's script as to what makes Callas tick. There is talk about how to be present onstage, and what kind of preparation you should do ahead of time to really feel the character and, in turn, the music, but that remains stubbornly superficial.

Wingert, however, is able to fill in the blanks left by the script. Her Callas is haunted by a career cut short, bitter resentment over the success of her rivals, and the failure of her time with Onassis. There is also a deep, abiding love of the music, which comes out as each of the students finds the depth and soul within their arias.

Kira Lace Hawkins is also very strong, playing aspiring singer Sophie DePalma as someone with a lot of nerves, but who finds great musical beauty (with Callas's help) when she sings.

Rothstein has crafted a solid production from beginning to end, with great acting, music, and an intriguing central character that only adds to the great year that Wingert has experienced in 2014.


Master Class Through November 2 Antonello Hall, MacPhail Center for Music 501 S. Second St., Minneapolis $35-$45 For tickets and more information, call 612.339.3003 or visit online.

After 'Master Class,' you'll want more; 'Wonderland' reading at the Weisman

Star TribuneBy Pamela Espeland October 14, 2014

Time flies during “Master Class,” the Tony-winning play by Terrence McNally that opened Friday. Not because it moves through the years – most of it takes place during a few hours on a single day – but because it’s over too soon and we’re left wanting more. More stories, more singing, and more Sally Wingert, who takes on the daunting role of diva Maria Callas and fills it with power and passion, hilarity and sorrow.

Theater Latté Da’s director, Peter Rothstein, set his production at MacPhail Center for Music’s Antonello Hall. Acoustically sublime, seating only about 250, it’s a place where real master classes take place. As the audience, we’re part of the play. The rest of the cast includes Andrew Gourgoin as Callas’ stoic pianist; Paul Von Stoetzel as a lumpish stagehand; and Kira Lace Hawkins, Benjamin Dutcher and Kelsey Stark D’Emilio as hopeful young Juilliard students who have signed up for their moments with La Divina. They come expecting pointers, praise, a brush with fame or “feedback,” a word Callas reacts to as if it were a cockroach in her dressing room. Each is berated and harshly critiqued, yet each is smart enough to listen, watch and learn.

The singing by Hawkins (Rothstein’s Sallie Bowles in “Cabaret”), Dutcher and D’Emilio is superb. (And super hard: famous arias by Bellini, Puccini and Verdi.) Except for a single unforgettable note, Wingert doesn’t sing (although she did as Fraulein Schneider in “Cabaret”); at this late stage, Callas had lost her voice. But she could teach, and she could remember moments from her incredible life.

Opera stars were yesterday’s supermodels, pursued by wealthy men, their lives tabloid fodder. At several moments during “Master Class,” the lights change and we’re drawn into Callas’ past, her years on the world’s stage, her suffering as an artist, her insecurities, rivalries, triumphs and fraught relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who sounds like a brute.

The first time Wingert as Callas steps back into memory, she does it without saying a word. As Hawkins sings an aria from “Macbeth,” Wingert walks slowly to the back of the stage, passes behind the piano, and leans against a wall. Standing still, facing away from us, she pulls our whole attention like a magnet, and we know, or think we know, where she is: on stage at La Scala. That’s acting. When she voices the single syllable “O!” (which she does often throughout the play, as an exclamation), it comes from deep in her chest, carrying weight and sometimes pain.

And yet, despite the awareness that we’re seeing a star fading – “Master Class” takes place five years before Callas’ death – this is a very funny play. Wingert slings zingers with abandon. On Joan Sutherland: “She did her best … A 12-foot Lucia de Lammermoor? I don’t think so.” On stage behavior: “Never move on your applause. It shortens it.” Calling in a student: “Next victim!” There’s a lot of laughter in Antonello Hall, something we weren’t expecting, and one of the reasons we wished the play were longer than its two hours. Through Nov. 2. FMI and tickets ($35–$45). Tip: The center of the hall is raked, the sides are not. While we generally like sitting on the sides at Antonello, if you’re behind someone tall, your view might be obstructed.

Sally Wingert is masterful in 'Master Class'

Star TribuneBy Graydon Royce October 13, 2014

REVIEW: Sally Wingert slips into the restless and enigmatic skin of legendary soprano Maria Callas in “Master Class.”

Maria Callas is hectoring a student about “presence.”

“I’m drinking water and I have presence!” she insists.

It is a throwaway moment dramatically, but it says so much about the opera legend in “Master Class.”

Callas was that rare creature who we suspect sprang into existence fully formed from the forehead of Apollo. She became an open heart in performance, daring her voice with reckless performances and leaving a bit of her soul of stage so that audiences would remember the night they saw Callas.

Actor Sally Wingert has taken the prodigious legend on her shoulders in Theater Latté Da’s production of “Master Class,” which playwright Terrence McNally crafted from sessions Callas held with voice students at Juilliard in the early 1970s.

“Master Class” is not a great play. It lurches in spots and occasionally goes maudlin. Don’t see it for that reason. Do see it, though, for the opportunity McNally has created to study a character whose very life was a performance. Director Peter Rothstein stages this work in a recital hall — Antonello Hall at the MacPhail Center for Music — and that intimacy only makes Wingert’s work more immediate and real. Callas was human, we sometimes forget, and Wingert pours out all the tools of her humanity to make the case.

As she enters the stage, Wingert’s Callas knows who she is and knows she need not impress anyone with airs. She shares chatty, self-deprecating banter with the audience, comments on the lack of a cushion on her stool, displays her awkward social graces with the pianist who will help her coach these students. It is small-bore acting, realistic and never aware of itself.

Students (victims, she calls them, shouting out, “Next victim please!”) enter her orbit, hoping to grab a bit of the fairy dust in the atmosphere she breathes. The leonine diva prowls, snaps, interrupts and begs these young singers to know what she knows and feel what she feels. At the least, she barks, enunciate the words and listen to the music for the journey it lays out. “It is all in the music,” she says many times.

Wingert’s performance is worth seeing. She becomes almost invisible in her emotional transformation (give Rothstein much credit for that) and she accomplishes this through an articulate technique: her voice is deep in the back of the throat, her gestures never wasted. The wig (Robert Dunn) and costume (Willene Mangham) provide even more cover for Wingert.

McNally chose music for this play that resonated with Callas’s life and career. As the singers perform, Wingert’s character recedes into herself. We see regret, age and vulnerability in Callas’s inability to leap the chasm of time to past glory. We also see the impact her blunt pestering of the student has. In the case of Kira Lace Hawkins’ Sophie, a transcendent performance; Kelsey Stark D’Emilio’s Sharon, on the other hand, rebukes Callas’ lack of generosity and slips in the dagger of truth that this old lady’s salad days are long past.

Andrew Bourgoin is accompanist and music director for this production. The character is a prop but the musical underpinning is essential.

Indeed, Callas is right. She and this play — this experience — is worth our presence.

Graydon Royce •

'Master Class' review: Sally Wingert masters Maria Callas

Pioneer PressBy Renee Valois October 12, 2014

"Master Class" is supposed to be about a class that opera diva Maria Callas taught at the Juilliard School of Music back in the early 70s. But it's actually a master turn in acting by Sally Wingert.

Minnesota audiences are notorious for giving practically every production they see a standing ovation, but here it's justified. Wingert puts on a clinic. She's sublimely convincing as the diva with a dominating ego who is cruelly critical of others, partly due to her own insecurities.

Terrence McNally's script makes Callas funny as well as harsh, and Director Peter Rothstein and Wingert make the most of it. Wingert owns the stage.

It was inspired of Rothstein to place Theater Latte Da's show in a performance hall at an actual music school, MacPhail Center for Music. As we enter, there are chairs set up facing the stage as if for students, giving us the sense that we are actually entering a real master class. Callas also talks to us as if we are her pupils, bringing the conceit of the show to life.

Her patient pianist, Manny (Andrew Bourgoin), becomes the gofer of the diva as Callas torments her "victims," three young would-be opera singers. Kira Lace Hawkins, Benjamin Dutcher and Kelsey Stark D'Emilio sing in turns as Callas' pupils -- and provide emotional responses to her blunt critiques. Her first student can't even finish the first note before Callas stops her.

As they are tormented, we are treated -- to powerful voices and soaring high notes from the performers, who have sung in operas here and elsewhere.

D'Emilio is especially noteworthy and is the only one to give as good as she gets to Callas. Yet Callas does improve the craft of each of the trio, who learn to bring passion to their performances.

Lighting dims around Wingert and her spotlight softens and changes in hue to signal moments of memory, when we go into the mind of Callas and discover the demons that plague her. There's narcissism in Callas' view of the world, but we learn that she suffered (or at least thinks she did) in homage to her craft, that her sister was lauded for her beauty while she was the "ugly" one, and that Ari (longtime lover Aristotle Onassis) did a number on her self-esteem.

Even as we dislike the way Callas treats her vulnerable students, we see the fragility hidden in the core of the dominating diva exposed in Wingert's portrayal -- and it drives us, defenseless, into empathy.

It's a thrilling performance.

What: "Master Class"

Where: Theater Latte Da at MacPhail Center for Music, 501 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis

When: Through November 2

Tickets: $31-45

Information: 612-339-3003;

Capsule: Masterful acting makes this a performance to remember

Master Class produced by Theater Latte Da at McPhail Center for Music

How was the ShowBy Janet Preus October 12, 2014

Imagine sitting as an observer in a master class taught by Maria Callas, the enormously gifted and equally controversial singer who literally changed 20th century opera in her relatively short lifetime. This is the world we’re part of in Theater Latte Da’s production of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class.” Sally Wingert as the famous diva is fabulous, owning the stage, just as Callas did.

It is set—perfectly—in Antonello Hall, a true recital performance space in MacPhail’s Center for Music. There’s a Steinway concert grand piano, a small table, a stool (which Callas finds too high and so demands a footstool). She places her large handbag on the table and intermittently rummages around in it, pulling out a pair of glasses or a handkerchief for the student she has reduced to tears.

This is all that’s needed to engage us. We have the great Maria Callas in front of us, and we pay attention to her every word, even when the words are self-indulgent or don’t make sense.  “Art is domination,” she says, and the audience is the “enemy” that must be won over. Seconds later she announces that “art is collaboration.” Ok. In Callas’ estimation, it is both. For today. She also says of her equally famous contemporary, Joan Sutherland, “She did her best. That’s all any of us can do.” This audience laughed, of course.

Often thought to be the best as an actress in opera than anybody, it takes someone with Wingert’s presence and style to command equal attention. Not a small thing! Wingert conveys with such passion Callas’ message, which is not about herself; it is about the music. “It’s the work that matters,” she says, pushing again and again to have her student singers “feel,” not perform, and to pay attention to every possible detail.  “The music, Sophia,” she tells her student. “It’s all there!”

Kira Lace Hawkins plays, “the first victim,” as Callas jokes. “You’ll catch on to my sense of humor. Some people think I don’t have one.  (pause) Tenors.” (Big audience laugh.) Hawkins has a list of major musical theater roles in her resume, but nicely assumes the role of the eager student, Sophia DePalma. She clearly has a wonderful voice; Callas finds other flaws. “You need a look,” she snaps. “Get one!”

Benjamin Dutcher, fresh out of college, plays the eager Anthony Candolino and quite believably brings Callas near tears with his touching Puccini aria. He is one to watch.

Kelsey Stark D’Emilio is the powerhouse singer in this trio of student roles, playing Sharon Graham, who not only sings her way through multiple pieces in Verdi’s “Macbeth,” but also faces down her teacher, generating all the blushing frustration of a real-life encounter.

Andrew Bourgoin plays Manny Weinstock, the coach accompanist, whose name Callas can’t seem to remember. Bourgoin is an accomplished pianist, with serious singing and acting chops to boot.

Paul Von Stoetzel, known more for his film work in the Twin Cities, plays the stagehand who puts up with Callas’ demands, but barely. His heavy walk, sullen expression (and tattooed arms) were spot on.

We step out of our observer roles just two times, as Callas remembers both great and painful turning point experiences in her past. The device, done with simple lighting changes, felt like a device, but Callas’ speeches are delivered so beautifully by Wingert, that we were quickly drawn away from the master class itself, and smoothly returned to our observer role.

These flashbacks serve to give us a larger picture, one that includes Callas as a lonely woman, whose choices have forced her into battles with the opera world, the press and the general public. Wingert gives us the demanding star, but we also see the unhappy and isolated woman, too.

Some of the play is fiction, no doubt, and some is fact, or the playwright’s interpretation of it, but this line I choose to believe: “I am certain that what we do matters,” she says.

The show runs through Nov. 2. Recommended!

Sally Wingert Prepares for Challenges of Master Class

City PagesBy Ed Huyck October 9, 2014

Tackling Terrence McNally's Master Class -- his examination of the life, career, and soul of real-life opera diva Maria Callas -- is not something to be done lightly. Theatre Latte Da's Peter Rothstein knows this, as he directed the show for Park Square more than a decade ago.

Prime among the concerns? Having a strong actor in mind for the main role.

Enter Sally Wingert.

"I'd work with Peter if he was doing Mary Had a Little Lamb," Wingert says. In fact, the veteran performer was honored last month with an Ivey Award for her work this year, including in Latte Da's Cabaret. "I'm not a musical-theater performer, so to have two shows with Theater Latte Da in one season is fantastic."

Master Class features Callas as a number of young aspiring singers. As they perform, Callas is taken into memories of her career and life.

"It is about performance," Rothstein says. "The performances of the other four can't be 'act-y' at all. They have arcs and character traits. They have to have stakes in the game, but it can't be acting."

Wingert's challenges start with the person herself. Callas was a larger-than-life character who is considered one of the top opera singers of the 20th century. McNally based the play on a series of master classes she gave in 1971 and 1972, after her retirement and a few years before her death.

"At its core, it is a pretty fascinating character study. You could do the narrative in one sentence," Rothstein says. "It is telling that Callas was a singer, not an instrumentalist. She is her own instrument and only instrument. Like an actor, people are always judging you. You are most vulnerable when you have given all of your life to it. What happens when it goes? What's left?"

"[Callas] was someone who was literally a diva. On one side there is hubris and the other side is insecurity. At any time, you are dealing with extremes. It is very exciting that way," Rothstein says.

"There is a great deal about her. She was interviewed on TV, and you can hear the master classes. She is fascinating. Anybody would find her interesting," Wingert says.

Wingert found additional kinship with Callas, who struggled with her weight. "I border between attractive and not-attractive. I know what it is like walking around not feeling attractive," she says.

The performance has also opened up Wingert's interest in opera. "I'm listening to the three pieces in the show. When I'm biking home, I find one of the phrases has caught in my head like a little earworm," she says.

For this production, Rothstein chose the Antonello Hall at the MacPhail Center for Music in downtown Minneapolis. "The room has fewer bells and whistles this time. There's not scenery and seven light cues. You enter the theater and you are already on the set," he says.

"The space works like gangbusters," Wingert says. IF YOU GO:

Master Class In previews today; opens Friday through November 2 Antonello Hall, MacPhail Center for Music 501 S. Second St., Minneapolis $35-$45 For tickets and more information, call 612.339.3003 or visit online.

Theater Latte Da's Master Class: Eight things to expect

MPRBy Jay Gabler October 10, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS — Theater Latte Da is presenting Terrence McNally's Master Class at MacPhail Center for the Arts' Antonello Hall. If you're considering attending this play about the later years of legendary soprano Maria Callas, here are eight things to expect.


1. Expect to hear Maria Callas — but not Sally Wingert — sing. Though Callas is heard in recordings, her character — played by Sally Wingert — does not sing. Her students, however — played by Kira Lace Hawkins, Kelsey Stark D'Emilio, and Benjamin Dutcher — do sing, and quite well.


2. Expect a beautiful venue. If you haven't been to the stunning recital hall at MacPhail, find an opportunity to do so. Designed by architect James Dayton, the space opened in 2008; it's an apt venue for this production.


3. Expect to bone up on your Callas history. The program has a two-page timeline of Callas's life; I found myself consulting it multiple times.


4. Expect to be curious about who "Ari" is. For the uninitiated: the "Ari" Callas repeatedly mentions is Aristotle Onassis, the Greek magnate who had an affair with Callas until Onassis broke it off to marry Jacqueline Kennedy. ("There [was] just a natural curiosity," explained Onassis about the circumstances under which he and Callas hooked up. "After all, we were the most famous Greeks alive in the world.")


5. Expect Ivey buzz for Wingert, who excels in this showcase role that's been played by Tyne Daly, Patti LuPone, and Faye Dunaway. The Ivey Awards, though, could hardly honor Wingert any more than they already have; at last month's ceremony, Wingert was honored for her performances in four (!) different roles last year.


6. Expect some sweet 70s duds. The play is inspired by master classes Callas taught at Juilliard in the early 70s, and costume designer Willene Mangham has fun recreating the era — especially with the colorful costume worn by Hawkins.


7. Expect to reach for some opera afterwards. The three selections performed in Master Class are Amina's sleepwalking aria from Bellini's La sonnambula, Lady Macbeth's aria "Vieni! t'affretta" from Verdi's Macbeth, and Mario Cavaradossi's aria in the first act of Puccini's Tosca.


8. Expect to argue about the scriptMaster Class won the 1996 Tony Award for Best Play, but some think it hasn't aged well: "Master Class is not, by even a generous reckoning, a very good play, though it can be an entertaining one," wrote Ben Brantley recently in the New York Times. "Mr. McNally (whose earlier Lisbon Traviata, which took a more indirect look at Callas, is a very good play) is an opera buff who here mixed a passionate fan's knowledge of myth, gossip and music into one pulpy, Broadway-ripe package."

Master Class plays through Nov. 2. Among the scheduled post-show discussions is an Oct. 23 conversation with Classical MPR's Julie Amacher. At 8:45 a.m. on Oct. 16, listen as Wingert, Hawkins, and director Peter Rothstein join John Birge on Classical MPR to talk about Master Class and perform selections from the show.

1 week, 2 openings: Peter Rothstein's 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Master Class'

MinnPostBy Pamela Espeland October 9, 2014

Peter Rothstein is living the dream. He has two plays opening this weekend, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” at Open Book and Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” a fictionalized account of the time soprano Maria Callas spent coaching students at Juilliard, at MacPhail Center for Music. He’s directing the Shakespeare for Ten Thousand Things and the McNally for his own Theater Latté Da. This is his fourth time working for TTT, his first Shakespeare, and his second go at “Master Class,” which he directed for Park Square Theater in 2001.

We started off talking about “Romeo and Juliet.” TTT, if you haven’t yet seen the work of Michelle Helmsley’s innovative company, starts each run in prisons, shelters and other nontraditional spaces before moving into Open Book for public performances. It’s theater in a suitcase, flexible and spare.

MinnPost: Besides the challenges of minimal sets, no lighting, no sound, no backstage, being semi-itinerant and performing in prisons, what is unique about directing for Ten Thousand Things?

Peter Rothstein: Every director should have this challenge on a regular basis, because it’s easy to let those other things distract us. It really gets down to story, and how you use actors to tell a story. That’s thrilling as much as it’s challenging.

One thing that’s so great about Ten Thousand Things is they prioritize actors and pay actors well. When you’re dealing essentially with text and actors, they have to carry 90 percent of the story. Actors want to do the work. It’s satisfying work. So while you’re denied some of the other things, you have the luxury of working with the best actors in the city. I have seven Equity actors in this show. That doesn’t happen very often for me.

MP: Do you find the stripped-down nature of these productions limiting or liberating?

PR: Always liberating. That’s how I grew up. I was directing Broadway musicals on a dime from my early days. Whenever I teach directing, I always say, “Your limitations are your greatest source of creativity.” You end up making choices based on what-ifs. If I can’t have this, then what if this?

In the case of “Romeo and Juliet,” I knew I wanted one of [the leads] to be an actor of color. The Nurse and the Friar are sympathetic characters, the voices of conscience in the play, and I didn’t want them both to be white actors. How do I [treat] family units in a color-blind casting approach? And how do I take a play with 40 characters and tell it with eight actors? Limitations end up exercising your point of view, your theatrical notions and impulses.

MP: This is your first Shakespeare. What was the hardest part?

PR: Probably – and this is often the case – the fear before jumping in. Once I jumped in, I felt quite at ease. First, I needed to tackle the cutting, since I knew we weren’t going to do the whole play.

MP: You did the cutting?

PR: I did all the cutting, and I ended up loving that process. You have to learn a play really well in order to cut it. You have to learn what every word means and track all of the storytelling pieces. It was kind of a full-time job for about two months.

My associate director, Carla Noack, has done a lot of Shakespeare, and I emailed her the first act after I finished the cutting and said, “Have I cut anything sacred or committed blasphemy?” She said, “For some people, cutting a word would be sacrilege, so you have to liberate yourself from that.”

To be honest, I didn’t know enough to know what was sacred and what wasn’t. So for me, it was a matter of what’s the story I need to tell? And how am I going to tell it? How do I distill this story down to its essence?

I honor iambic pentameter across the board. I never lost any rhyme structures. I didn’t lose any antithetical structures that [Shakespeare] built a lot of his language upon – when he takes words that are opposites and builds on them. I really didn’t change a word, and I didn’t rearrange text at all. [But] I bet I cut 35 percent of the play.

MP: What else makes this production different?

PR: The look of it is quite contemporary, because the story transcends time and the language is so boring to people. I wanted contemporary costumes and props so those things would create recognition, not more distance.

So, for example, when the set designer said, “Really, can it not just be a basic bottle? Does it need to be a bottle of Jack Daniels?” I said, “Yes, it has to be a bottle of Jack Daniels.” That wasn’t about being anachronistic for the sake of being clever, but to make the experience more immediate. Because Shakespeare’s theater was anachronistic. He put all of his characters in the dress of the day, even though many of his plays were set in times past.

We thought about a telephone at one point. But if they did have phones, Friar Laurence could have just called Romeo on the phone and we would have a happy ending.

MP: Let’s talk about “Master Class.” Why set it at MacPhail, in Antonello Hall?

PR: A great part of being an itinerant company is I get to say what play I want to do and choose the ideal space or neighborhood for that play … [Antonello] is the right venue for this show, and the acoustics are gorgeous.

The original master classes weren’t in a theater, they were in a recital hall. … The play will begin for people when they walk down the sidewalk into the building, because there will be kids walking up with their cellos and their violin cases.

MP: You’ve directed this play before. What made you want to do it again?

PR: I read it again, and I saw and heard things that didn’t resonate with me as deeply when I was in my early 30s, but they do now. A lot of this play is about a singer at the end of her career. When a voice is their instrument, their livelihood, their art, and they don’t have a voice anymore, what’s left? What is their legacy? For Callas, singing was a live art form. She wasn’t known for having a beautiful voice. She was known for her incredible interpretation and her acting. So her CDs are only a fraction of what she gave to the art form.

So much about this play is about legacy. When you don’t have children, what do you leave behind in the world?

MP: Are you having those thoughts yourself?

PR: Yeah. I’m in my late 40s. As a person whose art is temporal, it’s nice to have your work recognized and celebrated, but it closes. It’s not a painting that can live on a wall. It’s not a film that can live on a piece of plastic or in the Ethernet somewhere. When what you do is temporal, what do you leave behind? That’s the real question.

MP: So this play feels more personal to you now than it did before.

PR: Much more.

MP: Are you approaching it differently?

PR: I am. And it’s interesting to talk about this against “Romeo and Juliet” when they’re so wildly different. My work with Ten Thousand Things has given me confidence in what I need or don’t need to create a piece of theater. So there will be only two light cues in “Master Class.” There’s no scenery, no bells and whistles. It’ll be house lights up, house lights down.

The Park Square production, while relatively simple, had a few bells and whistles and scenic tricks. This one will be much more stripped down, much more exposed. It’s going to be a pretty poignant telling.

MP: What is it like having two plays going at once? 

PR: In this business, you’re just so lucky to work. The riches of it are a real luxury, but the work is most satisfying when you can completely immerse yourself and lose yourself in the given world of a play. Now I get to do that in two plays. But you have to be careful. I knew “Master Class” intimately, and I needed to make sure I had “Romeo and Juliet” on its feet before I could start to think about “Master Class.” … I haven’t done this in a long time, and I wouldn’t recommend it unless it’s work you really know.


Public performances of Ten Thousand Things’ “Romeo and Juliet” start Friday, Oct. 10 atOpen Book. The play moves to the Minnesota Opera Center for its final weekend. FMI and tickets ($30 general admission). Through Nov. 2.

Theater Latté Da’s “Master Class” opens Saturday, Oct. 11 at Antonello Hall in MacPhail Center for MusicFMI and tickets ($35–$45). Through Nov. 2.

Theater: 'Bigger than big' soprano Maria Callas recalled in 'Master Class'

Star TribuneBy Graydon Royce October 9, 2014

Director Peter Rothstein and star Sally Wingert consider the complex life of fierce diva Maria Callas in “Master Class.”

Peter Rothstein generally does not revisit shows he has directed — annual holiday remounts notwithstanding.

The Theater Latté Da artistic director has made an exception with “Master Class,” which opens Saturday at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. Terrence McNally based his 1995 play on a series of master classes Maria Callas held at Juilliard in the early 1970s. Thirteen years after he first directed the show, Rothstein felt that it would be a good character study for his friend and frequent collaborator Sally Wingert.

“She was an artist,” Wingert said of the famous soprano before a recent rehearsal. “Callas never calls singing a craft. It’s an art.”

Callas was among the most serious artists who gave themselves to opera. Fierce in her singing, temperamental and deeply emotional, Callas brought an intensely dramatic interpretation to her roles. Her voice was perhaps not the best — critics considered it shrill at the top end — but Callas was a creature of nature who dominated audiences with breathtaking confidence and artistry.

‘Bigger than big’

“She was bigger than big,” Wingert said. “She’s on a par with Marilyn Monroe as far as iconic 20th-century women.” It is tricky to find an analog for Callas among today’s opera superstars. Anna Netrebko, who is singing Lady Macbeth to fabulous reviews at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, draws comparisons for her stage presence, but opera in 2014 occupies less of the public consciousness than it did 70 years ago. The late tenor Luciano Pavarotti became a superstar who enjoyed broad popularity, and Renée Fleming introduced many Americans to the art when she sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl in February.

Otherwise, as Wingert asked, “Can you name five top sopranos in opera today?”

Beyond her stage presence, Callas became legendary for a personal life that became entangled with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and the intrigue that followed his late-life romance with Jacqueline Kennedy.

Callas fought with impresarios and famously turned down an invitation to debut at the Met in the late 1940s because she felt she was “too fat” to play Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Although she would become a statuesque performer with sleek cheekbones and dark beauty, her early life affected her image.

“I did not know she was a fat, ugly girl, and she carried that bag around with her,” Wingert said.

A new appreciation of legacy

Rothstein, who directed Jodi Kellogg in the role at Park Square Theatre in January 2001, said he looks at the play differently now than he did almost 14 years ago.

“This idea of legacy, what she was leaving behind, feels much different to me at 48 than it did when I was 34,” he said. “The play feels more universal because of where I am.”

McNally’s play allows Callas flights of reverie, when she walks away from the class she is teaching. In these moments, the diva reflects on her life, which ended at age 53 in 1977 — a few years after her Juilliard sessions.

In an epilogue to the master classes, Callas wrote in 1972, “Whether I continue singing or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that you use whatever you have learned wisely.” How one spends the remaining days of a life, and looks back, is crucial to that sense of legacy, Rothstein said.

He also has grown in his appreciation for the vulnerability Callas allowed herself as a performer. Her reckless abandon in performance created an event — a lasting impression that superseded the opera. Callas would scold anyone who asserted that this was the case, such was her dedication to the pre-eminence of composers, but it’s true.

“I felt that watching Vanessa Redgrave in ‘Ghosts’ in the West End,” Rothstein said. “I could see how an audience clings to the memories of being at that performance, all experiencing it together.

“People who saw Callas say that same thing. I would give anything to have been able to see her in the theater.”

Lonely at the top

Wingert has been on a roll, playing characters that feel singular even if there are other actors on stage. Her turn in “The Receptionist” by Dark and Stormy in December focused on her, and she recently played the solo show “Rose” for Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. There are several other actors in “Master Class,” but it’s really about Callas.

“I don’t really love one-person shows because they are so lonely,” Wingert said, half laughing. “I love the audience experience because it’s provocative to mix it up — so much is direct address. But the dressing room is kind of lonely.”

Being Callas on stage has a certain aloof requirement. She was unique, and in 1971 she was feeling a mortality that would have outstripped the glory of her memories. Those are, indeed, lonely moments.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299