Master Class

Terence McNally
Theatre Royal Bath production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

Master Class production photo

I have just had the privilege of sitting-in on a Master Class taken by Maria Callas, or at least Stephanie Beacham giving such a masterful interpretation of the operatic diva that if the two were on stage together I think it would be difficult to tell the difference.

The original classes, taken at a time when Callas was losing her vocal range, took place in New York in the 1970s and were intended to nurture aspiring opera singers, correct their faults, and encourage them in their careers, and I believe they did so. The play, however, is much more an interpretation of the Callas we know from media reports and, although Beacham strides confidently on stage “to work”, there are more insightful memories of her past turbulent life evident in the dialogue than actual work. Opera buffs might find this frustrating, but it does make a fascinating, intriguing and often poignant entertainment and we are treated to some recorded arias from the one that her lover Aristotle Onassis scathingly called his ‘canary’ as well as some superbly sung operatic excerpts from the students - that is, when they are allowed to get past the first note.

The stage is bare, save for an impressive grand piano and magnificently gilded proscenium arch, and Beacham is on stage for the entire show, keeping the spectators in the palm of her hand as she delivers instructions, demonstrates her meaning, addresses comments to members of the audience and reminisces about her life through triumph and adversity. There are two long monologue with her alone in the spotlight and not a murmur is heard from the entirely spellbound audience.

She has ‘the look’ - which to her encompasses not only dress sense, but confidence, bearing and personality - and she berates her students (and some members of the audience) for not getting it right. A strong woman, expecting perfection from herself and others, she is very conscious of her diva status, demanding cushion, footstool and water to the irritation of Scott Hazell’s unimpressed stagehand.

The students - one underdressed, one overdressed and one distinctly casual - come in for some harsh criticism, but with important advice. “Anyone can stand there and sing - an artist ENTERS” and, more importantly, “Listen to the music, it’s all in the music”. Robin North as the nervous overawed Sophie de Palma is somewhat disillusioned, Sharon Graham (Pamela Hayes) leaves in tears (having previously thrown-up in the toilet), but not before she has delighted us with her exquisite singing. Tony Candelino (Christopher Jacobsen) is the only one to impress her (and us) with a very moving aria from (I think) Tosca, while musical director David Harvey inspires and impresses on piano.

The dialogue is witty, amusing and sometimes caustic and autocratic, as well as wistful, resentful and longing, creating an excellent balance between the domineering diva and the vulnerable woman - “there is always someone plotting your downfall” - and under Jonathan Church’s expert direction the pace never flags for an instant.

Perhaps not completely true to the original master classes with their endless, but necessary, repetition but this is a truly remarkable performance from Beacham (who never loses her Greek accent) and a tantalising glimpse into the life of one of the greatest opera singers of all time. Magnificent!

Reviewer: Sheila Connor