By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
Have you ever attended a master class in voice? Well, those classes you remember may not be exactly along the same lines as the one you will witness at Metrostage’s “Master Class.” This intriguing play is based on the 12 actual classes Maria Callas taught at the Julliard School in New York City in 1971. I remember her doing them, having just recently graduated from a conservatory of music myself. But this is not your Barbara Cook or Renee Fleming master class! It is an inside look at the teaching methods, such as they were, of the most exciting, intimidating, maddening, and thrilling opera singer of her day – and possibly our day, too, were she still alive. It’s an intense and sometimes difficult play to watch in terms of Callas’ erratic behavior, but it has its own rewards and as it unfolds you will be treated to a remarkable story of an artist like none other!
Where most current voice teachers who teach master classes offer encouragement along with insight into singing, repertoire and vocal methods, Callas at this time in her life is bitter, almost broken, and tries to thrust onto her unsuspecting students far more information on life and her vision of her art than they could possibly absorb in this setting. She also impresses upon them the enormous amount of work and discipline it took to mold herself into “La Divina.” Or at least this is what Terrence McNally tells us in his Tony Award winning play from 1995.
Ilona Dulaski is both terrifying and vulnerable in almost equal measure in her splendid and spot on portrayal of Maria Callas. I can’t think of a better choice of actress/singer for this role. Dulaski uses her own amazing mastery of languages, operatic singing and acting to show the motivations of one of the most complicated figures of the 20th Century. While watching this intensely defined performance, what the audience is really observing is Ilona Dulaski’s own Master Class in Acting.
The other inspired casting choices by director Nick Olcott are of students who all happen to be from this area and are either graduates of or are graduate students still of local universities. Olcott, by the way, has been directing operas and writing wonderful adaptations of them for years, and his broad knowledge of the opera scene and lore is evident here. He has also directed many highly regarded shows at MetroStage.
The students, or victims as Callas calls them, portrayed by Emily Honzel as Sophie, First Soprano, Ayana Reed, as Sharon, Second Soprano, and Daniel Noone, as Tony, Tenor are all well trained with beautiful voices and react in surprising ways to Callas’ unconventional teaching methods. When Callas does notice and/or hear them, she becomes almost human and helpful in her sharp responses to the students. However, much of the time she gets swept up in a reverie of her past triumphs or tragedies through impressively handled video projections of her life with Aristotle Onassis and her estranged family in three curtained windows above the stage.
Emily Honzel, a first year graduate student in the Maryland Opera Studio, is made to stop, start, stop, and unfortunately gets to sing the least, but her earnest delivery and lovely voice makes her entirely believable to the audience. Ayana Reed, who was last seen at MetroStage in the critically acclaimed “Blackberry Daze” has an amazing vocal range and gorgeous sound and is quite witty, too. Daniel Noone gets the most attention, perhaps because of his handsome bearing and rich, velvety voice, but most certainly because he sings a gorgeous aria from “Tosca,” one of HER operas. But, even while seemingly smitten by him, Callas quickly says, “God save us sopranos from you tenors!” And she means it!
One of my favorite characters, Emanuel or Manny, the studio accompanist and genial foil to Callas’ prickly personality, is played by Joseph Walsh. Joe has actually accompanied and conducted many of the best singers through his long operatic experience with Virginia Opera preparing and conducting operas and now as Music Director for Mason Opera at George Mason University. In “Master Class” he has the audience in the palm of his hand for the entire show! Callas is skeptical about him, though, and tries to break him, but Manny perseveres and eventually wins her over. On the other hand, Michael Sharp, who is a MetroStage veteran and favorite, serves up much needed comic relief in the form of a bored stagehand.
Maria Callas famously said, “Wherever I am, it is hectic,” but we discover that this is a probably a gross understatement. When she was in the house, it wasn’t just hectic, it was ELECTRIC!
“Master Class” by Terrence McNally. Directed by Nick Olcott; set design, Rhe’a Roland; lights, Alexander Keen; costumes, Jingwei Dai; sound/projections, Gordon Nimmo-Smith
Performance dates, times, and ticket information: Through June 11 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal Street, Alexandria, Va. Tickets $55-60. Call 703-548-9044 or visit metrostage.org