‘Master Class’ is a master work about the ultimate opera legend

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The role of Calla is played by Angela Iannone. — PHOTO: Courtesy

Terrence McNally’s Master Class imagines a lesson that three fictitious students might have received from 20th-century operatic legend Maria Callas at New York’s The Juilliard School in the 1970s. Although the play has some basis in fact, it uses the characters and the teaching concept to present lessons that McNally wants his audiences to learn.

“This is a play, an act of imagination about someone it was easy to dream about,” McNally says of the work, which opens Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s 2014–15 season on Aug. 7. “It’s a play. I can’t believe how many times I’ve had to tell people this.”

The role of Callas, who leads her students through both dramatic and emotional lessons, will be played once again by Angela Iannone, whom local audiences have come to identify with the character. Callas has become part of her repertoire, as much for Iannone’s outstanding performances in the role as for the character’s enduring appeal.

“Callas remains as fascinating today as she was during her life,” Iannone says. “People are interested in seeing her story and the play is beautifully crafted, so it remains current.”

McNally attended a number of Callas’ master classes, but the idea of creating a play around the experience didn’t occur to him at the time. It wasn’t until he was exposed to another diva while teaching a playwriting class at Juilliard that the play germinated in the Tony- and Emmy-winning author’s mind.

“I was frustrated by my poor skills as a teacher, and by chance I saw a master class given by Leontyne Price,” McNally explains. He says he was struck by the theatricality of the situation of a famous person acting as an instructor and giving intimate advice to strangers.

“A year or so later I saw Zoe Caldwell perform a speech from my play A Perfect Ganesh, and she was the one who triggered the idea for Master Class,” he says. “And Zoe became my Callas.”

Master Class opened on Broadway in 1995, winning both Drama Desk and Tony awards for best play. Caldwell won a Tony for best actress and co-star Audra McDonald won a Tony for best featured actress.

Iannone, for the role, studied everything she could about the American-born Greek soprano. She studied her character as both a musician and a person and became familiar with the characters in her life — from lovers to conductors to dressmakers — so she could understand how to fully embody the role.

“Maria Callas was much more polite, precise and even scholastic than she is presented in the play,” Iannone says. “The smart thing McNally has done is to have the students ask the questions typical audience members would ask sitting through a performance. By having Callas answer as she does, they are allowed a view inside the mind and passion of a truly great artist.”

Callas has been researched extensively. Much is known about her life, including the years she spent studying at the Athens Conservatoire during the Nazi occupation of Greece. Since it was Italian rather than German forces that occupied Athens, Callas was allowed to continue her studies, singing frequently for the country’s captors. The early training and her complete devotion to her art made her the consummate artist, Iannone says.

“Callas was a painstaking and brilliant musician, spending months poring over every musical note in the score, every indication from the composer about how they wanted the role sung,” she says. “Then she spent weeks preparing with the conductor, familiarizing herself with their conducting style, and working with them to decide on tempos, cuts and the vocal demands of any particular role.”

Callas had an early operatic career in Greece before coming to the United States in 1945.

McNally attended the Greek premiere of Master Class nearly 20 years after Callas’ death in 1977, and he found the reactions of family and friends interesting.

“At the opening night in Athens, her sister told me she enjoyed the play, which made me nervous because I believe they hated each other,” McNally says. “Someone from the family of Aristotle Onassis (with whom Callas had a scandalous, high-profile affair) said she thought I was harsh on him. A little fat lady told me she was the soprano who took the role of Amina (in Bellini’s opera La sonnambula) from Callas at the conservatory, which is crazy since I totally made that story up!”

But McNally was not aiming to create a factual biography. In fact, he says there’s a lot of himself in his interpretation of Callas. “Callas the character is a composite of Callas the singer and McNally,” the author says. “It is the most autobiographical play I have ever written.”

Iannone considers the real Callas to be one of the most influential opera stars in history. It’s no surprise, she says, that Callas’ appeal endures.

“What satisfies me is that Callas continues to be the best-selling operatic artist of all time, over Pavarotti and any contemporary or past artist,” she says. “Her friend and colleague Tito Gobbi said of her that she was immortal, and she is.”

For McNally, Callas remains an inspiration and personal favorite.

“She’s the only singer I know enough about and one of the few I consider a creative artist in their own right,” McNally says. “Maria Callas, Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf are my personal pantheon.”

Chamber Theatre turns 40

Master Class helps kick off Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s 40th anniversary season, which is built around the theme “something old, borrowed and blue.” Other productions on the schedule include:

The Good Father: Christian O’Reilly’s gritty Irish love story features Laura Gray and Jonathan Wainwright as two unlikely paramours. This production is the play’s Midwest premiere. Sept. 17–Oct. 12.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised]: returns with a literary romp in which four energetic actors attempt to perform all of the Bard’s 37 works in 99 minutes. Nov. 19–Dec. 14.

The Train Driver: The latest hard-hitting drama by Athol Fugard seeks the identities of a South African mother and child unintentionally killed by a train. The Midwest premiere features American Players Theatre’s David Daniel and Michael A. Torrey. Feb. 25–March 15.

Jeeves Takes a Bow: Playwright Margaret Raether’s third adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s beloved stories finds Bertie and Jeeves in Manhattan dabbling with show business, gangsters and a kooky young chorus girl. April 16–May 3.

On Stage

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class runs Aug. 7-24 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Call 414-291-7811 or visit www.milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

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