Who could possibly have delivered Terrence McNally's Master Class other than Maria Mercedes herself? Based on a series of master classes held at New York's Julliard School in 1971 given by the legendary Maria Callas (it's almost superfluous stating that she remains one of opera's most celebrated singers), Mercedes completely owns her space.
|Maria Mercedes as Maria Callas|
It was Maria Mercedes being Maria Mercedes, commanding her performance in the same way Callas boasts that it could only be Callas when on the stage in all her glory. It's a high intensity experience that keeps its audience alert and the body tense.
Master Class superbly blends an informative class, a beguiling introspective portrayal of La Divina and searing vocal performances shared by her attending students Georgia Wilkinson as Sophie De Palma, Blake Bowden as Tony Candolino and Teresa Duddy as Sharon Graham. The audience is there to learn, to take notice and, quite possibly, to take down notes. The depth of realism and immediacy is astounding. That the portrayal of Callas is warped to heighten her bite becomes irrelevant.
Darting from worldly instructive tidbits to self-idolatry smugness, Callas ends up in almost pitiable territory. "If you don't have a look, get one", Callas tells her students. What she calls a sense of humour feels more like an assault on her prey. Callas is in perpetual combat with her own demons and the talented and spirited young students she can shred in an instant. Her students don't take it altogether lightly.
Callas won't be challenged despite her contradictions but her credo can be boiled down to first listening, then feeling and finally singing. It's the singing part that each successive, bemused student struggles to demonstrate due the relentless interruptions.
|Maria Mercedes as Maria Callas|
"Next victim!", Callas jokes, but the consequences of her tongue are knowingly laid bare as each aspiring student is pulverised by her unforgiving style. When they do sing, you can't help but relish the talent before you. Callas excuses herself for being harsh. You might not like her methods but, here in front of you, Maria Mercedes coerces and moves these singers to their best performance, at times not without tears.
Mercedes is authoritative as she traps her audience into Callas' disturbed psyche. It's wordy, and quick and you might pause listening to her self-indulgent, self-idolatry spiel but watching Mercedes is transformative. With each student's learned aria comes a flashback on her soul and Mercedes mirrors them nothing short of breathtaking.
Still, behind this woman whose hair is pulled back tightly in a bun, each hair drawn to seemingly manipulate her every concocted expression, a team consisting of director Daniel Lammin, producer Cameron Lukey and designers Brendan Jellie (lighting), Owen Phillips (costumes) and James Hogan (sound) create the striking pedestal for Callas to look down from.
Cameron Thomas, as Manny Weinstock the piano accompanist, obliges her with smiling good-naturedness and technical excellence.
I first saw Master Class in London in 2012 starring Tyne Daly at the sizeable Vaudeville Theatre. Daly was natural, formidable. But here at Fortyfivedownstairs, the generations-worn New York warehouse-style space lent a powerful intimacy and unequivocal connection between Mercedes' ownership of the role and her audience.
Don't be afraid to take pen and paper.
Production photographs by Clare Hawley