Master Class

Natasha Ciesielski
24th Jun 2024

American playwright Terrence McNally’s Master Class is a fictional story of operatic legend Maria Callas as a teacher. McNally, a teacher himself, was inspired after attending a masterclass at New York’s Juilliard School of Arts.

An American-born Greek soprano Maria Callas was considered one of the world’s greatest opera singers. Pushed into singing at a young age, she began her music training at the National Conservatory in Athens. She studied for five to six hours a day and by age sixteen was performing professionally. At the height of her career she left the stage (and her husband of ten years) for billionaire shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis (in 1959), who later abandoned her for Jacqueline Kennedy.  At 41 she ‘lost’ her voice and retired, dying 12 years later.

Callas was known for the diverse repertoire she could sing (her vocal range spanned three octaves), and the emotional intensity of her powerful voice. The Tony award winning opera play features live operatic performances from incredible opera singers.

Master Class is directed by Liesel Badorrek who has previously led theatre productions along with opera performances including Carmen.

Badorrek says: “To explore a life and psyche shaped by music and drama, it seemed appropriate to embrace live music in order to feel the immediate and visceral connection to the opera of Maria Callas’ life.”

Callas did actually teach at Juilliard and McNally’s Master Class honours the spirit of the icon. How close this frustrated unsupportive version of Callas the teacher is to the real woman is questionable but performed by Lucia Mastrantone, she’s certainly entertaining.

From the moment Mastrantone steps on stage she commands the audience’s attention, emulating Callas in her signature chignon hair style and stylishly dressed in a fur wrap, black pants and a silk shirt. Mastrantone doesn’t miss a beat, bringing humour to the role with perfect comedic timing. As Callas, she’s hard and demanding on her vocal student “victims”. Driven by her ego and high expectations, La Divina (The Divine) is critical to the point of cruelty to her anxious students who are initially excited to perform for the legend.

Working with an egotistical teacher was always going to be tricky but Callas barely lets them sing, interrupting with “do you mind if I do it?”. When the operatic students played by Elisa Colla, Matthew Reardon and Bridget Patterson finally do sing the arias, their voices soar.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes (including intermission) this is a long play and somewhat repetitive in the second act. The class scenes are brilliant but the soliloquies where Callas loses herself in flashback memories seem overly indulgent; perhaps better appreciated by those more familiar with the revered singer’s personal life?

Although the play is fictional, the story of Maria Callas is fascinating and this production offers a glimpse into the diva’s life. Complete with beautiful operatic singing, it’s an amusing and enjoyable show. Four stars.

Run time is 2 hours and 20 minutes (including interval) Master Class is playing now at Ensemble till the 20th July. 

Recommended for ages 14+

For tickets visit 》 www.ensemble.com.au 

Production images by Prudence Upton