Review: Master Class (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 20 – Apr 8, 2018
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: Adam Spreadbury-Maher
Cast: Jessica Boyd, Tomas Dalton, Dobbs Franks, Kala Gare, Amanda Muggleton
Image by Kate Ferguson

Theatre review
Maria Callas ranks amongst the world’s most loved opera singers in living memory. Terrence McNally’s Master Class features an extraordinary woman who understands her own magnificence, recreating sessions at the Juilliard School of 1971 and 1972, in which Callas provides instruction, on singing, art and life in general. McNally’s admiration is apparent, and the Callas he pens, is one determined to elicit her audience’s reverence, regardless of any feelings we may initially bear about the legendary star.

It is a spectacular piece of writing, with each line saturated with either comedy or pathos, and passionate lessons that many will find deeply affecting. It is also an extremely challenging work for the actor who decides to take Callas on, as no concessions are made that will allow any compromise in this portrayal of someone larger than life, and quite clearly a greater expression of human existence than most could ever fathom.

The best that one could hope for, is to come close, and actor Amanda Muggleton certainly does. Her astounding familiarity with the material and the technical precision she applies to it, are enough to impress, but the poignancy and disarming sense of spirit that she frequently delivers, not only has us captivated, we find ourselves moved, powerfully so, by her character’s unpredictably profound observations. We see Callas, but we also see Muggleton. In sections where the character is required to interact, with her audience or her students, there is often a humour that seems to emanate from Muggleton, that is somewhat distinct from La Divina, as she might figure in our imagination.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s direction is particularly noteworthy for the way vintage audio recordings are incorporated into the show. The simultaneous coalescence of Callas’ singing through speakers with Callas speaking on stage, is sublimely harmonised, to deliver a theatrical experience rarefied, and highly operatic. There is a tendency for the tone of performance to be repetitive, with speech patterns rarely deviating from an established range of inflections, but meanings and nuances of the text are always rigorously conveyed.

Callas wanted her students to leave it all on the stage; the inspiration she provides, is relevant to us all. The diva had lived fast, loved hard, and died young. In Master Class, some might choose to see a tragedy, but it is without doubt that her glory and influence remain immense and unequivocal. Whether or not one has an artistic practice, the notion that we have to give it our all, in order that something remarkable can result, is a lesson that bears repeating. It is not unusual advice by any means, but when it comes from a woman who had fought tooth and nail to attain her place in world history, its impact is tremendous.