Terrence McNally‘s play MASTERCLASS depicts a recreation of various sessions at the Juilliard School of 1971 and 1972, where three students are almost demolished in some ways by Callas and yet also encouraged and inspired in this at times witty yet very moving play by McNally that is full of vicious barbs and simultaneously poignant monologues.

It is simply staged and directed with a sure touch by Adam Spreadbury-Maher. On stage when the audience enters is a shiny grand piano and accompanist Manny Weinstock (Dobbs Franks). There is a small table with a music stand and a tall bar stool are in the opposite corner and the auditorium is brightly lit at first so Callas can see the audience. The first section of the play is dominated by autocratic demands for a cushion, the lights to be lowered and for her questions to be answered promptly and with clear diction.

Throughout the play there is an insistence on the holiness of the theatrical space and performance, a striving for perfection, a reverence for Art in its many forms and we learn of Callas’ passionate, turbulent life. She stresses the holiness of the theatre space and the need for hard work, discipline and technique ( “ There are no short cuts in art , no easy way“).  

Included in Callas’ meditative , powerful monologues , with projections on the back screen are memories of her younger years when she was regarded as rather an ugly duckling, her fierce hatred of her rivals and desire for revenge, the ruthless critics that savaged her early performances and her triumphs at La Scala in particular as well as other opera houses, and her affair with Aristotle Onassis. Mention is made of her performances in Tosca , Medea . Phaedre etc and we hear actual recordings of Callas singing .We see both her vulnerability , fragility and at times bitchiness.

The play ends with a monologue about the various sacrifices Callas made for Art and also mourns the fact she had no children. As Callas , Amanda Muggleton  prowls the stage and was charismatic, powerful and magnetic from her first imperious entrance in her mink coat like an elegant Dragon Empress through the audience and at one point perching on the stool and demanding “ next victim please “.   

Over the course of the play, Callas rigorously puts three students through their paces: the shy but passionately enthusiastic Sophie (Kala Gare) the confident, self- assured Tony (Tomas Dalton), and the nervous but fiesty Sharon (Jessica Boyd).

Somewhat naïve Sophie is reminded about the ruthless cutthroat atmosphere of the theatrical world (“someone is always behind you, ready to take your place “) and to LISTEN to the music it is all there in what the composer wrote . Gare as Sophie has a delicious soprano and sings Armina’s sleepwalking aria from Bellini’s La Sonnambula wonderfully  – when Callas will let her.      

Sharon, at first way overdressed, is at first pulverized verbally by Callas but she bravely changes and returns , eventually rehearsing and performing Lady Macbeth’s letter aria from Verdis’ opera .( Callas while Sharon is singing – ‘this isn’t just an opera, this is your life ‘) .  

Bearded , leonine Dalton as Tony impressively sings Cavaradossi’s first act aria from Tosca, despite claiming not to know the most basic dramatic context to the piece until Callas coaches him.

Dobbs Franks as Manny Weinstock , the daper , self effacing ,long suffering accompanist , was tremendous. He is kind and attentive and attempts to help the jittery Sophie.

Audiences were treated to arias sung by Boyd , Dalton Gare after the curtain calls . Callas loved passionately, lived fast and died young and the legend of La Divina lives on.

MASTERCLASS starring Amanda Muggleton as Maria Callas ran at The Studio Sydney Opera House March 20 – April 8 2018