Master Class produced by Theater Latte Da at McPhail Center for Music

Sally Wingert as Maria Callas in "Master Class."

Sally Wingert as Maria Callas in “Master Class.”

Imagine sitting as an observer in a master class taught by Maria Callas, the enormously gifted and equally controversial singer who literally changed 20th century opera in her relatively short lifetime. This is the world we’re part of in Theater Latte Da’s production of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class.” Sally Wingert as the famous diva is fabulous, owning the stage, just as Callas did.

It is set—perfectly—in Antonello Hall, a true recital performance space in MacPhail’s Center for Music. There’s a Steinway concert grand piano, a small table, a stool (which Callas finds too high and so demands a footstool). She places her large handbag on the table and intermittently rummages around in it, pulling out a pair of glasses or a handkerchief for the student she has reduced to tears.

This is all that’s needed to engage us. We have the great Maria Callas in front of us, and we pay attention to her every word, even when the words are self-indulgent or don’t make sense.  “Art is domination,” she says, and the audience is the “enemy” that must be won over. Seconds later she announces that “art is collaboration.” Ok. In Callas’ estimation, it is both. For today. She also says of her equally famous contemporary, Joan Sutherland, “She did her best. That’s all any of us can do.” This audience laughed, of course.

Often thought to be the best as an actress in opera than anybody, it takes someone with Wingert’s presence and style to command equal attention. Not a small thing! Wingert conveys with such passion Callas’ message, which is not about herself; it is about the music. “It’s the work that matters,” she says, pushing again and again to have her student singers “feel,” not perform, and to pay attention to every possible detail.  “The music, Sophia,” she tells her student. “It’s all there!”

Kira Lace Hawkins plays, “the first victim,” as Callas jokes. “You’ll catch on to my sense of humor. Some people think I don’t have one.  (pause) Tenors.” (Big audience laugh.) Hawkins has a list of major musical theater roles in her resume, but nicely assumes the role of the eager student, Sophia DePalma. She clearly has a wonderful voice; Callas finds other flaws. “You need a look,” she snaps. “Get one!”

Benjamin Dutcher, fresh out of college, plays the eager Anthony Candolino and quite believably brings Callas near tears with his touching Puccini aria. He is one to watch.

Kelsey Stark D’Emilio is the powerhouse singer in this trio of student roles, playing Sharon Graham, who not only sings her way through multiple pieces in Verdi’s “Macbeth,” but also faces down her teacher, generating all the blushing frustration of a real-life encounter.

Andrew Bourgoin plays Manny Weinstock, the coach accompanist, whose name Callas can’t seem to remember. Bourgoin is an accomplished pianist, with serious singing and acting chops to boot.

Paul Von Stoetzel, known more for his film work in the Twin Cities, plays the stagehand who puts up with Callas’ demands, but barely. His heavy walk, sullen expression (and tattooed arms) were spot on.

We step out of our observer roles just two times, as Callas remembers both great and painful turning point experiences in her past. The device, done with simple lighting changes, felt like a device, but Callas’ speeches are delivered so beautifully by Wingert, that we were quickly drawn away from the master class itself, and smoothly returned to our observer role.

These flashbacks serve to give us a larger picture, one that includes Callas as a lonely woman, whose choices have forced her into battles with the opera world, the press and the general public. Wingert gives us the demanding star, but we also see the unhappy and isolated woman, too.

Some of the play is fiction, no doubt, and some is fact, or the playwright’s interpretation of it, but this line I choose to believe: “I am certain that what we do matters,” she says.

The show runs through Nov. 2. Recommended!


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