“There are no shortcuts in art.”
How demanding is it to be a top-notch opera singer? If you’re Maria Callas, it pretty well encompasses your very existence. In the Arts Club Theatre’s Master Class, Gina Chiarelli shines as the has-been world-class diva. This season production opener at the Granville Island Stage delves into the life of one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. Maria is on stage for just over two hours, honing the skills of young opera hopefuls, at times bringing them to tears.
Callas is callous, egocentric, demanding, and humorous (especially when she’s directing her bites at the audience). Her intensity can be seen in both halves of the just over two hour production (with intermission). At the end of the first half, I felt transformed to La Scala as the real Callas belts it out amidst a sound shell that’s transformed to the classic Italian opera house via video footage.
The diva recounts her own times attending master classes: never once late and always there to serve the composer. She paints a detailed, colourful picture of her young years in Athens, headed to the conservatory. At times, Master Class feels like a one-woman comedy show, but her bashings and passion are not lost on us. Towards the end of the play, she mounts an amazing scene as her voice starts to fail her. Ironically enough, we hear little to none of Callas’ own vocal talent. Rather, the young students (two of which have absolutely amazing voices – Melanie Krueger as Sharon, and Frédérik Robert as Tony) are the stars on the rise. Young Sophie (Shannon Chan-Kent) is also lovely, and the first one at bat with Maria in the opening scenes.
In this production, the Callas story unfolds through her monologues, from Maria’s success in Greece, her years at La Scala, meeting shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, right through their affair and to the depression that followed its demise. In real life, Maria was filled with a never-ending sadness following the letdown of the Onassis affair, eventually dying of a heart attack in 1977 at 53, by then strongly addicted to sleeping pills.
“How can you have rivals when no one can do what you do?”
This is just one of many Maria Callasims that had the audience laughing along. I won’t spoil it for you by giving out too many more of them; suffice it to say very few of us would survive Callas as a voice teacher!
As fabulous as the students voices are when trying to sing for Callas, it’s Maria’s own reaction to their singing that was most interesting to me. Her eyes would gradually well up as she nodded her head, allowing just one or two positive comments to surface.
Manny Weinstock (played by Angus Kellett) is the only character that’s onstage for nearly the entire show. He sits calmly at the piano, listening intently to Maria and her barking orders to the stagehand (Felix LeBlanc) as well as her directing the three students. Manny has the patience of a saint to endure her brash style, but then again, this is the Maria Callas show, and a brilliant one at that! Kudos to Director Meg Roe, whose most recent Vancouver production was Electric Company Theatre’s All the Way Home, for which she won a Jessie Award for Best Actress for Small Theatre.
New York’s Juilliard School of Music circa 1971 is recreated by way of a simple stage set incorporating a sound wall, piano, and small desk and high chair: Maria’s domain.
Terrence McNally’s Tony award-winning Master Class is a terrific start to the Arts Club’s 49th season and continues through October 27 at Granville Island Stage. Visit the website for online ticket purchases and performance schedule.
Photo credit: David Cooper.