Terrence McNally’s Masterclass invites the audience into a master class set at Juilliard in the 1970s, taken by the esteemed opera singer and diva Maria Callas (Maria Mercedes). We are warned when Callas enters that this is not a show, it is a class, and the audience take on the role of observing students as Callas critiques and instructs her three ‘victims’.
As Callas, Maria Mercedes is passionate and intimidating, with an air of grace and grandeur. However, there are also moments where we receive an honest insight into Callas’ anxieties and vulnerabilities, and see her as the driven and damaged artist she was.
She instructs her students bluntly and harshly, and as accused by Sharon (Teresa Duddy), she makes the experience painful for the students because her own artistic and personal life faced serious scrutiny and hardship. Although the show rests on Mercedes’ impressive and realistic performance, the three young opera students and pianist Manny Weinstock (Cameron Thomas) all elevate the show through their flourishing performances.
The first student, Sophie De Palma (Georgia Wilkinson), is bubbly and gentle. Wilkinson earns the audience’s sympathy easily with her meekness and enthusiasm; her singing is impressive and when coupled with her compelling storytelling (which is brought out by Callas during the class), gives a captivating performance. Blake Bowden as Tony Candalino oozes self-assurance and arrogance, which Callas quickly tears apart. His snippet from Tosca is impressive both vocally and dramatically. Sharon Graham (Duddy) comes overdressed and is overly sensitive to criticism, and after exiting hastily to vomit from her nerves, she returns with ‘moot’ (courage in German, as we learn from Callas) and takes on Callas’ direction eagerly before eventually storming out due to Callas’ unnecessarily harsh approach.
McNally’s script under Lammin’s direction gives a realistic insight into a master class with Callas. The simplistic lighting design (Brendan Jellie), lack of sound amplification (James Hogan) and minimalistic set; merely a piano, a stool and a table for Callas’ water, enhance the authenticity of the piece.
However due to weaknesses in the script, the class, whilst believable, is not always emotionally engaging. At times it’s hard to invest in Callas’ anguish as she has spent so long keeping us at bay with her overbearing personality. There are some moments when the script gives an inspiring insight into the beauty and nature of the art, particularly when we are able to witness Callas’ fervour and commitment to the artistry of opera, and her repetitively affirmed instruction that singing is not just hitting the notes but feeling the emotions behind the story, which make the show worthwhile.
The emotional highpoints were Callas’ monologues which bookended each act. Listening to her students, Callas is transported back to her younger self, and we receive a raw look at her personal sufferings alongside her professional career. Whilst the monologue at the conclusion of act one was a glimpse into Callas’ vulnerabilities and insecurities, it was only really at the conclusion of the show where Mercedes’ powerful and generous performance enabled the audience to fully connect and sympathise with Callas, and appreciate her fully for the damaged person behind the determined artist.
Masterclass has some touching moments that inspire appreciation for Callas as a performer, but more so for the nature of the art itself. The show gives a realistic portrayal of a master class and interesting insight into Callas’ professional career, and under the direction of Lammin, Mercedes earns our full emotional investment by the end of the show, and the rest of the cast compel and engage us despite the occasional dull moments in the script.