‘Master Class’ is masterful theater

Reviewed by Tony Villecco

I admit I had some trepidation when I heard that a community theater group was attempting Master Class, Terrance McNally’s ode to his muse, Maria Callas. Any uncertainty was dissipated by a riveting presentation given in Owego by the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players.
Director James Osborne assembled an excellent cast and orchestrated a more than commendable production. As opera diva Maria Callas, Andrea Gregori was magical. Not only did she have the “look” of Callas, she used her hands (as Callas did) as an extension of herself, creating a vivid and, oftentimes, haunting portrayal of the troubled diva. From her entrance to the flashback sequences to the pointed tongue lashing directed to her students, Gregori proved she was a force to be reckoned with.
And while this is a loving tribute to “La Divina,” it also is a play about the actual master class that Callas offered to aspiring singers at the Julliard School in 1971. And these singers were better than good. As the poor whiplashed accompanist Maddie, Heather Ingraham stood her ground with the maestra while probably wondering what the heck she had gotten herself into. A fine pianist, she played the difficult Verdi and Puccini arias with ease.
As Sophie, soprano Jana Kucera was the epitome of the”wannabe” opera singer who really had no clue what it all meant. Sadly for us, she never gets to complete the gorgeous Bellini aria “Ah! non credea mirarti,” but, as Callas spoke the aria for her, we realized what it takes to be a sincere and committed artist.
Joe Brainard played Tony, the somewhat egocentric tenor who just wants to sing and be like his idol, Mario Lanza. Callas soon breaks him down too as he realizes there is so much more to making real art while interpreting the challenging “Recondita armonia” from Puccini’s Tosca. (Tosca was one of Callas’s most acclaimed roles.) When Tony finally understands his role as an artist, the moment was palpable.
Maria Aimoniotis as Sharon was not only a fine actress but a credible Verdi soprano. In Sharon’s attempts to reconcile both her admiration and dislike for Callas, she too is changed although we never got the sense of whether it makes a difference to her. The incredibly difficult aria “Vieni t’afretta” from Verdi’s Macbeth (also a Callas specialty) was a torture chamber for both student and teacher, who recalls her own glorious past, again and yet, again.
As the carefree and “could care less” stage hand, Joe Schmieg was very funny in his dealings with Callas the teacher, Callas the Monster.
This production used some images of the real Callas throughout her turbulent life and career paired with actual recordings of  “the voice.” One is brought to a vivid realization with regard to the absolute artistry of Callas and just what made her such an iconic figure as titillating today as she was 50 years ago.
But the show is Gregori’s. She has honed and sculpted a fiery and memorable impersonation of the great Maria Callas, one with which, I think, the diva herself would be willing to share the spotlight.

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2 Responses to "‘Master Class’ is masterful theater"

  1. I agree with you totally; in fact I’ve run out of superlatives to describe the show in general and Andrea specifically. Keith Weston and I were just discussing today how Andrea just disappeared into the character.

    I would like to mention, for people who are not familiar with the show, that it’s pretty much a one-woman show, and, if the technical aspect of memorizing all of those lines isn’t daunting enough, the role also requires the actress to portray Giovanni Meneghini and Aristotle Onassis, the latter being, in my view, the real villain of the piece. That part delves into some dark and harrowing places, and yet the play also had howlingly funny parts and is, as a whole, triumphant.

    I was there opening night and at the end I looked at the empty seats and was sad that people who could have been in those seats — and would have been as riveted as I was — were not.

    One last superlative: Zoe, Patti, Faye: make room for Andrea.

  2. Tony Villecco

    I had read several bios on Callas, and, if what was depicted in the play (the cruelty by Onassis, for one) is factual, it is indeed sad and tragic — much like many of the opera heroines she portrayed. I had read that she once said: “First I lost weight, then my voice and now, Onassis.” I think she truly loved him though I cannot see the attraction. She certainly did not need his money. Regardless, she was brilliant, and I find no soprano today who can thrill me with their recordings like Callas. Even in vocal decline, it was such an amazing instrument for the drama and her interpretations were (are) riveting.