— Gina Chiarelli in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Master Class. Photo by David Cooper.
For a couple of decades in the mid-20th century, Maria Callas was the world’s most famous opera singer and maybe its greatest. They called her La Divina, the divine one. They called her a lot of less flattering things, too. She came to define the term Diva.
In the Arts Club production of Master Class, Terrence McNally’s 1995 Tony Award winner, Gina Chiarelli plays the diva divinely under Meg Roe’s unfussy direction. Chiarelli herself doesn’t sing but she lights up the stage with a fiery, funny performance.
Hotheaded, difficult, paranoid, but a brilliant singer and performer, Callas retired prematurely from the stage in 1965 after her voice began to deteriorate. She remained in the news because of her relationship with Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis until he left her for someone even more famous, the widow Jackie Kennedy.
In 1971-72, Callas taught a series of master classes at New York’s Julliard School, where McNally sets the play. Three students expose themselves to Maria’s genius and bluster, condescension and embrace. She coaches, cajoles, interrupts and entertains. It’s always about Maria.
Much of egomaniacal Callas’ dialogue concerns the details of her life and career, and a lot of opera is sung in the production, live by the students and in recordings by Callas. It definitely helps to know about the singer and care about the song.
But biography and opera prove less important to the play than Art with a capital A, a theme expressed not only in her commentary but through the passionate intensity with which Callas lives and relives her life and her art. That’s where Chiarelli really shines.
She comes onto the stage dressed in a dark brown pantsuit and bold scarf, her thick black hair pulled tightly back in Callas’ trademark style, speaking to her stoic piano accompanist, Manny (Angus Kellett), and to the audience with whom she develops a nice rapport. Her hands are always moving, as though the world were an orchestra and she its conductor.
“Singing is serious business,” she declares. “You must subjugate yourself to the music: you are its servant!” At first we don’t know how seriously to take her, especially when she keeps cutting off the young singer Sophie (Shannon Chan-Kent) before she can get past her first note. Is this artistic philosophy or buffoonery? It seems like the world’s worst teaching method.
She bullies Sophie. “Feeling, feeling, feeling!” she yells, all the while carrying on a nonstop monologue about herself: the difficulty of life in Athens during the war, the vulgarity of Onassis, her constant victimization. “But that’s another story,” she deadpans to the audience, her comic refrain.
Sophie sings Bellini, so we hear Callas singing Bellini as she recalls fragments of her life against Corwin Ferguson’s beautiful kaleidoscopic backdrop of unfocused projections of herself. The pattern is repeated when soprano student Sharon (the excellent Melanie Krueger) tries singing Verdi’s Lady Macbeth while Callas coerces and insults her. Callas is much nicer to handsome Tony the tenor (Frédérik Robert), who sings a Tosca aria and is utterly bewildered by her bizarre routine.
The routine can be very funny. She was persecuted, she insists, by her enemies, not her rivals. “How can you have rivals when no one else can do what you do? Eh?”
But it wasn’t funny when her voice started to go, or when Onassis made her get an abortion, then left her. We become increasingly aware of her desperate neediness, how she uses her students like a drug, channeling their bodies and voices to get the art-fix she needs to keep herself vital and alive.
The lesson this class teaches is as sobering as the music and acting are thrilling.