Terrence McNally’s MASTER CLASS, as presented by Cape Town Opera and Pieter Toerien Productions, with direction by Magdalene Minnaar gives audiences a glimpse into the essence of Maria Callas, from the playwright’s perspectives. Superbly performed by Sandra Prinsloo, supported by the enthralling voices of Brittany Smith, Alida Scheepers and Tylor Lamani.
Part love-letter to Callas, part diva caricature, MASTER CLASS, gives audiences a glimpse into the version of a Maria Callas created by a fan who happened to be a celebrated playwright.
An opera-themed play in the relatable setting of a Juilliard masterclass (after all, we’ve all sat in some or other class contexts where someone self-indulges a bit more than they teach), MASTER CLASS is a play about Callas that arguably stops short of unpacking her true emotional extremities. It rather focusses on presenting a not-always-nice, lonely figure as viewed through a humane lens. Yet, bring all of that together, no matter how contrived, and McNally still manages to create a play that has charm to it.
Structurally, McNally’s play does not really take us anywhere beyond his portrait of Callas in the context of the master classes she gave at the Juilliard School in New York in 1971. Act Two is stylistically a repeat performance of Act One, and does not really move the play forward in any heightened way. Audiences are treated to three versions of a teacher trying to reclaim the limelight (though professing not to do so), while cutting students down to size in the process. Considering this repetitive style, MASTER CLASS is not so much about character development, but rather a vehicle for character reflection.
It stands in stark contrast to the style of the actual masterclasses presented by the real Callas, where she was never unprofessional or snarky towards her students. With that in mind one wonders if McNally was not perhaps relying too much on divisiveness when he was moulding his fictionalised version of his La Divina for MASTER CLASS.
Sandra Prinsloo nevertheless stands strong in her role as Callas, a role that is essentially a one-person straight play with musical interludes, making it a role that few can tackle with success. Prinsloo is unmic’d, unmatched and in control of every breath and heartbeat of her character. Her delivery needs no more amplification than her pure talent. She brings her own gravitas to the role and stays in character from beginning to end, turning what could simply be a one dimensional caricature of a diva into an endearing snapshot into the life of a woman who was both loved and hated with gusto. Callas preferred that polarising perspective rather than to suffer the fate of mediocrity. Prinsloo understands that, as is apparent in her performance. She becomes McNally’s image of La Divina with the skill of a consummate professional, and it’s fantastic to witness how she holds the audience in the palm of her hand. She brings true presence to the play.
Although technique is what McNally’s Callas apparently preaches, the plot is more Callas in conversation about what it takes (commitment, talent and “mut”) to make art, specifically theatre, and less so about singing technique. As the latter was the focus of the real life masterclasses, one soon realises that here McNally uses the concept of the teacher-student(s) scenario to provide context as he unpacks the loneliness Callas endured throughout her singing career, as well as all she had to give up or go without in pursuit of her passion.
The observations the play makes about theatre are not new, but there is an appeal in hearing apparent truths being affirmed in a class-like setting. Among the truths there are generalisations that can come across as overused showbiz slang, but I did find myself giggling along at the obvious observations that Prinsloo delivered with sardonic wit.
As a whole, McNally’s approach to a Callas-conversation is less nuanced than expected, but I nevertheless enjoyed the small moments of big emotions that were unpacked with the aid of visual recordings that offered a glimpse into the different stages of a love-lost life. This appreciation is further bolstered by the added bonus of brilliant singing courtesy of this latest staging.
Cape Town Opera Soloist Brittany Smith, along with the CTO's Judith Neilson Young Artists, Alida Scheepers and Tylor Lamani, are a joy to the ear in the roles of the students. They reveal the vocal talents of true young opera stars with exceptional accuracy under the guidance of musical director Jose Dias who also steps into the role of Manny, the accompanists at Callas' beck and bark (finding solace in the fact that at least she doesn’t bite).
There is perhaps a debate to be had whether the play calls more for actors who can sing or operatic stars who may also act a bit when it comes to the roles of the three students. I do believe I prefer the latter, as it presents the audience with the opportunity to experience great arias in an intimate setting not usually associated with the grand scale operas from which these arias are taken. As such, one excuses the fact that the three opera performers are not an acting match for Prinsloo as they bring their own particular form of magic to the play.
Through the interaction with the students, McNally’s Callas reveals that somehow, no matter how mean spirited a mentor can be, we tend to automatically assign gravitas to their mean opinions if they previously reached the top of their craft, with success masking them from ridicule in most instances: a moral conundrum I pondered as I left the theatre.
One further wonders if audience reactions in the mid 90s, when McNally first wrote and staged MASTER CLASS, were very different to audiences who now may not take kindly to the shaming and bullying of students. Does this shift the impact point of McNally’s intended Callas depiction? Would the current audience component view McNally’s vision of Callas with less forgiveness for her harsh pedagogical tough-love approach to the moulding of the dreams of young artists? Perhaps the present take-away is that hurt people hurt people.
Though the perspective of McNally’s Callas may differ between time of creation and current staging, there is something enduring in this oversimplification of a demanding, nostalgic, utterly alone and unloved Callas. The one thing that remains the single kernel of unquestionable truth throughout the play is Callas’ contribution to the world of opera.
The set is sparse with its minimalistic impact found in its functionality. There’s no clutter here to distract from the conversation unfolding between the students (both onstage and in auditorium) and Callas - nothing detracts from McNally’s vision.
All-in-all I found MASTER CLASS to be an enjoyable night out at the theatre. You have until 11 March 2023 to see it at Theatre on the Bay, before it transfers to Pieter Toerien’s Theatre at Montecasino in Johannesburg from 15 March to 2 April 2023. Tickets available online through Webtickets.