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.