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SPOTLIGHT: José Dias on the magnificence of Callas in McNally’s MASTER CLASS

Barbara Loots


MASTER CLASS, the 1995 play by Terrence McNally about Maria Callas, is being staged at Theatre on the Bay from 20 February to 11 March 2023 by Cape Town Opera and Pieter Toerien Productions in the year that sees the diva’s 100th birthday celebrations. Beloved as she was and remains, the play is also a reminder of the talent we lost when McNally sadly passed in 2020. So to say that this promises to be a treat for people who love all things theatre is no frivolous statement. As the excitement builds to the opening of the show, starring Sandra Prinsloo, we asked the musical director, José Dias, to share some of his thoughts about the play, process and the voice that was Callas.

The natural starting point of this conversation has to be the feeling it evokes to stage this production in such a momentous year. In considering this, Dias points out that, “Maria Callas is one of those icons that do not need special anniversaries to remind us of her greatness and of the reasons for her fame - she is constantly in our minds, reaching ever deeper into popular culture”. Yet, he does admit that there is something special about the opportunity to bring MASTER CLASS to Cape Town audiences in the year of Callas’ centennial birthday and it definitely did help for the stars and the logistics of it all to align perfectly as they are teaming up with Pieter Toerien Productions “to make the present production possible”.

Staging MASTER CLASS in South Africa has been a shared creative bucket list item for himself and director, Magdalene Minnaar. The fates seem to be smiling down on this production as their dream becomes reality. Prinsloo was apparently “immediately intrigued and tickled by the idea” of portraying Callas when they approached her. They were understandably over the moon when she agreed: “Seeing it all come together now, and actually being on stage working on it every day is a joy beyond words.”

Dias has made a name for himself as a soloist, chamber musician, and vocal accompanist and coach, and has been the musical director of some of Cape Town Opera’s acclaimed international touring productions (such as African Angels and African Passion). So one has to wonder where the MASTER CLASS dream took root. Surely there is a Maria Callas influence in his origin story?

Callas has indeed been a huge influence in his own creative career, being the catalyst for his involvement in theatre. He sees her as a “separate entity” that stands apart from other great operatic stage artists, holding the view that she may forever be unmatched. He declares that “there is really opera (and music!) before Callas and after Callas”. This perspective has definitely influenced the approach he takes as a musical director:

“Whenever I work with a singer on a certain role I always tell them that they MUST listen to Callas' recordings of it. You might prefer other models for your vocal approach, she might have an instrument that is very different to that of the singer in question, but interpretatively there is no better source to discover possibilities. She dug the deepest. On a broader note, it is singing like hers, filled with meaning, that enlightens my approach to instrumental music too. I try to approach phrasing as if there were words and breath involved. Only that gives music the humane flexibility that makes us really connect with it and feel it intimately.”

Considering the passion with which he speaks of Callas, does he have a favourite story of this legend? Indeed, he does! A favourite for him is one told by her close friend, the conductor Nicola Rescigno:

“When they did La Traviata at Covent Garden together, at the end of Violetta's final aria ‘Addio del passato’, Callas did exactly what Verdi asks for in the score - a long, ethereal, fragile, pianissimo high A on the words ‘or tutto finì’ (now all is ended). Every night, that moment seemed so dangerous, so close to a crack, that Rescigno kept asking her to give up her ‘Greek stubbornness’ and do what all other singers do: get to the note in full voice and then pull back to the required pianissimo; a beautiful effect and a much safer approach. Callas' reply is telling: ‘Nicola, I won't compromise. I will crack every night, but I am dying, and that is the way it's going to be.’ Callas was willing to take these risks, to bear the possible criticism, because she believed in these details with all her soul. If that isn't truth in art, I don't know what is.”

With their shared appreciation of the contribution of Callas to the world, I think a conversation between Dias and McNally about the diva would have been its own type of masterclass. Even though McNally did not know Callas personally (apparently he only met her once while crossing a street in New York), Dias points out that McNally was an “absolute fanboy” when it came to her: “He watched all her performances at the Met, attended some of her now legendary masterclasses at the Julliard School of Music, and was clearly steeped into her recording catalogue and biography.”

Whilst being a clear fan, McNally never professed to have written MASTER CLASS from a documentary point of view, but rather an emotional one. This is arguably why the play hits the relatability mark with audiences so easily: we all would like to think we really know the artists we look up to. In this instance, the legend being emotionally (if not 100% factually) celebrated in the production just happens to be Callas. Dias agrees, “we all DO know Callas, she is unavoidable” and it is this sentiment that McNally manages to tap into with MASTERCLASS.

“We all have strong feelings about her, love her or hate her, because that is the kind of artist that she was – all or nothing. The kind we wish there were more of today, instead of all the over-packaged, Instagram-ready artistry that is keeping our musical community in a loop of crowd-pleasing repetition.”

McNally turned his fascination with Callas into inspiration for his craft. He was a “naturally human” playwright who was “the least concerned with literary prowess or perfections and the most concerned with immediate truth”, which is the reason his “works are so full or wit and levity”. Dias holds this to be a very unique McNally ability:

“He pierces that veil of comfortable entertainment, reaches for your heart and breaks it into tiny pieces. He was never scared of confronting difficult subjects (just think of the play Corpus Christi), but he always does it in this naturalistic way that draws the audience in with its casual, accessible tone, without ever being patronising or preachy.”'

Considering this, it is then no surprise that McNally chose the period of Callas’ life when she had not sung for six years (in fact, had lost her singing voice) and was presenting a set of masterclasses at Julliard (the ones he also attended) to use as the context for his exploration of the potential emotional heartbreak and raw feistiness of his diva. Dias holds that it is this exploration of McNally that presents the great challenge in tackling MASTER CLASS: “For most of the play we are really all on stage just going through the mundane moves of a typical voice masterclass with a famous singer, but because it is Callas, it becomes an unforgettable journey of discovery of her life and career, and especially of what it takes for an artist to achieve true excellence and greatness.” The accessible, humane genius in McNally’s plays draw audiences into the mundane with ease to discover the magic that one finds in the ordinary, small moments. This is the case in MASTER CLASS too. “He dares to present her not as an icon but as a woman”, Dias continues. “A woman with so much wisdom and integrity that we hang on her every word, but also a woman capable of such biting wit, bluntness and callousness that we coil at her force. In the end he also shows us where this hardness comes from, what it took for the young Maria Kalogeropoulou to build the ‘adamant’ shell that sustained Maria Callas.”

As such, McNally uses the play as a vehicle to communicate the essence of the legend of Callas in a way that transcends all through her music: whether you already knew of her or only meet her in the play for the first time, he cultivates an intimacy between her and his audience.

In talking about his approach to Callas, Dias shares that “we should take the time to sit with the full opera recording, following the libretto or its translation, accompanying the drama”. With this he reveals that he does have a deep appreciation for the drama that underpins MASTER CLASS and the music it draws on.

This appreciation of the drama is key to any staging of MASTER CLASS, as the play requires a balance to be struck between acting (specifically with Sandra Prinsloo as Maria Callas being a purely acting role), and singing (by the young CTO talents stepping into the shoes of the aspiring opera singers mentored by Callas). It calls for an approach that, in pursuit of the overall dramatic tone, seamlessly merges the play’s intense elements (that are interwoven with nuance and wit) and its operatic components to present a cohesive play. Turning this challenge into an achievable task seems an intimidating feat.

In tackling this challenge, Dias firstly gives credit to McNally for giving him and Minnaar the tools to bring it all together:

“McNally is incredibly clever and knowledgeable in the choice of arias that are presented at this Master Class. They not only suit the individual student-characters that he created perfectly, but also allow Callas to approach different facets of her craft and personality, as well as recollections of her experiences with those roles. I don't want to give away quite what those arias are, but let's just say that they give us a glimpse of her intense feelings on bel canto and its centuries-old traditions, but also on the visceral dramas of Verdi and Puccini, and some of the heroines of epic stature which she portrayed in such a ground-breaking way.”

Another part of what makes it possible for Dias as musical director to find that required balance is the joy and ease with which he collaborates with Minnaar. Their relationship clearly transcends that of artistic collaborators at Cape Town Opera. Their relationship is more that of siblings: “We are totally open and critical with each other, but with the total confidence that our personal relationship will never be jeopardized in any way… We really are a team, always working towards the same goal, even if in different ways - we want to engage, entertain and surprise our audiences, we want to keep this artform we love so dearly alive and see it thrive and renew itself.”

MASTER CLASS is however somewhat different to the usual opera context in which Dias and Minnaar collaborate, so with this one he follows her lead: “She is the director and I am simply supervising the musical elements. So she is in all aspects the person with the vision to which I adhere, especially because I am also on stage, in character, the whole time. But she is always asking for feedback from myself and the cast, she is constantly checking whether things feel natural and make sense for all of us. The tricky part of this script is that it is to a great extent so naturalistic that it almost defies direction. The evidence of great direction here is when you cannot feel it at all. Magdalene is very aware of that and is working daily with all of us towards that final goal.”

In addition to being the production’s musical director, Dias is also stepping onstage as one of the actors. One can imagine that once he takes his seat behind the piano in character it could be tough switching to merely put assign the hat of musical director.

“It’s not really that difficult”, he shares, “once the rehearsal starts I am McNally's character of the accompanist and I try to be totally involved and lost in the scene”. He finds an equilibrium between his two personas even when on stage. He refers to this as “the multi-tasking exercise of being a character”. Dias reveals that, when on stage, you find “a little corner of your mind analysing and taking mental notes to work on later”, which he regards as comparable to “being at the helm of an operatic performance… conducting with all of your soul, hopefully listening to the music as it unfolds in an almost instinctive way, but you are also managing a million little practical details like the singers' breath, balance, phrasing, etc”.

It all sounds very technical though… Is MASTER CLASS a play that will resonate with a broader audience? Dias immediately puts our minds at ease:

“It is absolutely a play for anyone who loves theatre, who loves stories, who loves being lost in a fictional situation that feels so foreign and yet so true to all of us.” For him it’s a play for everyone who has ever set their mind to do something and given it their all: “If you have ever tried to do something well, if you have ever had an inspiring teacher or a brilliant but daunting one, if you have ever tried to rise to the standards of those you admire, this play is for you. The device of the master class, and the use of Callas are just brilliant vehicles to tell very true human stories of growth, self-improvement and following one’s passions and dreams.”

Ultimately, Dias feels that audience will walk away with a wonderful experience seeing all these elements come together. He wants everyone to encounter the magic that MASTER CLASS holds:

“The joy of being in the presence of Callas for a couple of hours, even in this fictional way, will certainly enthral her fans and newbies alike… [As will the] privilege of seeing the phenomenal Sandra Prinsloo take on this mammoth role... And I hope that… [the audience] might leave the theatre believing, as Callas did, that it was all worth it.”

In the end, MASTER CLASS is a human interest story from the pen of someone who knew how to make flawed human beings vulnerable and real by allowing an unguarded soul to reveal their inner loss, love and torment. In this production, McNally does it through the structure of the play, “the operatic elements emerge very naturally, blending themselves as they would in the context of a real master class”, says Dias.

“What we do in this production which is different from others, is that we give the audience more opportunity to hear our wonderful singers”, Dias reveals. “Often this play has been done by straight actors, or musical-theatre artists who were not necessarily as convincing as operatic performers.” But it would be such an opportunity lost (with access to great talent such as soloist Brittany Smith together with the Judith Neilson Young Artists Alida Scheepers and Tylor Lamani) to not showcase some Cape Town Opera talent. Dias agrees “it would be a crime not to allow these glorious voices to be heard as much as possible.”

He does want to keep some secrets though, so this is as much as he was willing to reveal apart from the fact that he thinks it will all be an “engaging and rewarding experience for the audience”. Who knows “it might even win some theatrical fans over to our operatic dark-side!”

MASTER CLASS is at Theatre on the Bayfrom 20 February to 11 March 2023 and thereafter moves to Pieter Toerien’s Theatre at Montecasino in Johannesburg from 15 March to 2 April 2023. Tickets cost from R180 to R280through 021438000/1 or or via Webtickets. Please note: no under 13’s.


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