'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; latteda.org

Capsule: Masterful acting makes this a performance to remember