By Colin Douglas
Before the houselights dim, world-famous diva, Maria Callas, steps onto the stage of a lecture hall, at New York’s Juilliard School of Music, authentically recreated in beautiful detail (note the shape of the floor) by scenic designer Arnel Sancianco, and speaks directly to her audience. Chosen from hundreds of applicants, we are all her specially selected vocal students, eager for any pearls of wisdom that Callas has gleaned from her long career in opera.
In those first moments, the ever astonishing, mega-talented and multi-Jeff Award-winning Janet Ulrich Brooks totally transforms into the celebrated singer. At once, the actress changes the theatre audience into an auditorium of her anxious music students. The performance becomes interactive, with the theatergoers serving as Callas’ acting partners. The resulting immersive event, Master Class, created by prolific playwright Terrence McNally (who also honored Callas in his play, The Lisbon Traviata), is superbly guided by Chicago’s incomparably gifted Director Nick Bowling. Musical direction and flawless piano accompaniment is provided by talented, young actor/singer/musician, Stephen Boyer. His performance adds immeasurable humor and balance to this production.
This 1996 Drama Desk and Tony Award-winner for Best Play is tailor made for the intimate setting of Stage 773. The drama is primarily a one-woman show, with Brooks holding court on a stage, often shared only by Boyer at the baby grand. Eventually, however, three easily-intimidated students join her for mentoring.
The first is Sophie, portrayed by lovely, talented Molly Hernandez, who was last seen in Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story, the recent multiple Jeff Award-winner for Best Musical and Ensemble. Tony, the golden-throated, arrogant young tenor, arrives with an abundance of confidence. He’s played by Broadway actor/singer, Eric Anthony Lopez, who makes both his Chicago and TimeLine debuts with this fine performance. Finally, a student named Sharon enters the stage for her mentoring. She’s beautifully played by Keirsten Hodgens, another cast member from the “…Buddy Holly” production. This talented actress/vocalist offers a bravura performance that practically steals the show. After initially fleeing the stage in fright, Sharon returns to face her fear. Hodgens’ performance so moves Callas, as to motivate Brooks’ final, stirring monologue about sacrificing for one’s art.
Brooks’ performance is completely natural and believable, her lilting dialogue conversationally realistic and her sarcastic sense of humor biting. The actress plays Callas as a diva who, as described by those who knew her, was larger than life. The three young, aspiring singers, who’ve been chosen to participate in this musical master class, are each unique individuals. As might be expected, nerves cause these would-be opera stars to speak with wide-eyed wonderment; but their singing, ironically, is their comfort zone, as well as their area of vulnerability. Callas constantly reminds the students that they must listen to the composer’s work and “be” the music. She advises these performers not to act but to live inside the lyrics and become the character they’re portraying.
But this is totally Maria Callas’ show. She berates, lampoons and criticizes everyone: her students (“Where are they? I don’t have all day. I have a hair appointment”), the management (“Where’s my cushion? I asked for a cushion.”) and even her audience (“Not everyone has style; YOU know what I mean.”) Sparked by the musical selections chosen by her students, Brooks often retreats into the diva’s memories, recalling ill treatment by the press, contempt for her rivals, a failed marriage to Giovanni Meneghini and an affair with Greek millionaire Aristotle Onassis.
This brilliant production is an important play for anyone involved in the arts, especially the field of music. It leaves the audience with the image of a great artist, a perfectionist who expected nothing less from her students. Hoping to impart her wisdom from years of experience to the future generation of opera, the theatergoer leaves, having beheld a woman who was first and foremost a hyper-critical artist, and whose personal happiness blossomed only when she was on a stage performing for her adoring public.
“Master Class” is presented through December 9 by TimeLine Theatre Company at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.