Reviewed by Lee Shepherd
The ghost of Maria Callas visited Binghamton Friday night (Feb. 23). The legendary opera singer, dubbed “La Divina,” was channeled in a tour de force performance by actress/singer Andréa Gregori in Tri-Cities Opera’s production of Terrence McNally’s 1996 Tony Award-winning drama Master Class.
The script is a haunting portrayal of life after stardom, when Callas gave 23 master classes at the Juilliard School in the 1970s.
Using her incredibly expressive voice, face, hands and body, Gregori performed essentially a 21/2-hour monologue that ranged from ribald stand-up comedy to Shakespearean soliloquy. Often addressing the audience directly, Gregori alternately dismayed and impressed the students who appeared before her, played by Binghamton University masters student Lianne Aharony (Sophie) and TCO Resident Artists Stacey Geyer (Sharon) and Jordan Schreiner (Tony).
In the process, Gregori (and McNally) ripped away the caustic and confident facade of the opera star, to reveal the child-like woman who conquered her insecurities, waged battles against an overbearing mother, shed an elderly husband, bartered with a cruel and demeaning lover, jousted with fiercely hated rivals, overcame nasty critics and savaging audiences, and became an opera legend.
Gregori, against a backdrop of vintage films and recordings of the real Callas singing, dreamily retreated into recollections about the glories of her life and career, as she emerged from a fat, ugly duckling into the svelte beauty who took La Scala by storm. Using body language, she quickly shifted between characters, completely believable in whatever role she portrayed, including her crude, boorish paramour, Aristotle Onassis.
Aharony, Geyer and Schreiner gave stellar performances as the naive, unjaded and unpolished young singers. Unfortunately, Sophie’s few notes (Callas cut her off repeatedly) only hinted at Aharony’s fine singing abilities. The over-perky Sharon and over-confident Tony were allowed to sing their arias all the way through, and they both sang beautifully. All three are excellent actors as well.
The self-effacing piano accompanist, Manny, played by TCO Musical Associate John D. Cockerill, served as a foil to Gregori’s emotional outbursts and mood swings. On stage the whole time, his reactions added to the humor and pathos of Callas’ story, and his piano accompaniment was sensitive and passionate.
Former Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan made a cameo performance as a stagehand, adding some deadpan humor.
If I have one criticism, it’s that Gregori might lighten Callas’ accent, so thick within a script imbued with Italian opera terminology. She’s sometimes hard to understand, especially when coaching the young singers as they sing. As she stresses to the students, diction (along with discipline, honesty and heart-felt emotion) is of utmost importance.
Master Class brought back TCO alumna Cynthia Clarey, who skillfully directed the show. The story paralleled some of Clarey’s experiences as an ingenue who walked out on a Callas master class in the 1970s. Don’t miss the program article by BAM reviewer Tony Villecco recounting that story.
And don’t miss the beautiful costumes representing Callas’ most memorable roles, brought out from TCO’s collection and displayed in the back of the hall.
IF YOU GO: Master Class will be presented at 7:30 p.m. today (Feb. 24) and 3 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 25) the Tri-Cities Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton. Visit tricitiesopera.com or call 772-0400 for tickets.