Amelia Broome (as Maria Callas) kneels in supplication to God and tremulously speaks the lines which have just been sung without much emotion by her student in Terrence McNally’s MASTER CLASS (at New Repertory Theatre through April 21st). For that fleeting moment, I saw Callas in Broome’s performance—and my heart skipped a beat.
The difficulty in a play about someone so familiar (to opera lovers/singers) is that we know what Callas looked like, sounded like, spoke like: The way she drew herself up to command the stage with sheer will and backbone. We reveled in the thrill of that glorious vibrato which could pierce your soul, those full, daring low notes, her plummeting descents. She sang like it was life or death. (Mind you, not everyone loved the wobble and many voices were/are sweeter but she had that something no one has seen since.)
Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman and company make a brave effort but McNally has set them up for an impossible task. When the script introduces her recorded voice, I couldn’t pay attention to his dialogue. When Broome speaks over the recording with a particularly unpleasant reminiscence of Onassis, I couldn’t concentrate and as McNally has Callas tell us, “listening takes concentration.” Now this may not be an issue for non-opera/non-Callas loving audience members.
When McNally brings out the coquette in Callas (which was in full flower at Symphony Hall toward the end of her career: she had us eating out of her hand), the script is a delight: McNally has her complain about a taciturn stagehand who doesn’t know who she is—and he has her dish about rivals she thought were “plotting her downfall.” Broome makes us conspirators in her naughty asides.
John Traub’s floating instruments are an evocative backdrop for the opera stories Callas recalls but it’s the singers who subject themselves to her withering criticism who supply the drama in Master Class. Brendon Shapiro as the pianist is a charming foil for Callas and Erica Spyres supplies the innocence of the lamb to slaughter. Darren T. Anderson impresses with Cavaradossi’s opening salvo but Lindsay Conrad is the wonderful surprise, whose shimmering vibrato reminded me of Callas!