Master Class, LA

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Master Class

By Terrence McNally
Directed by Heidi Helen Davis
With Ellen Geer
Theatricum Botanicum
Topanga Canyon (Los Angeles)
Through Sept. 25, 2010 (Note: “Master Class” is played in repertory.)

Ellen Geer (left) and Meaghan Boeing in “Master Class”
Photo by Miriam Geer

We all have rituals, certain ways we handle a variety of life’s events, or things that we do on something like a seasonal or annual basis. For me, a summer ritual is a picnic under the trees with friends (and some wine) before a performance at the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon. This fine repertory company produces four or five plays each summer generally featuring several Shakespearean works and perhaps another classic. In addition, they generally perform a more contemporary piece. It is the latter that I gravitate to every summer. I have no intention of abandoning this ritual despite my disappointment in “Master Class,” this year’s contemporary offering.  

“Master Class” is one of Terrence McNally’s three plays about opera, a  passion of his. Ellen Geer is Maria Callas, the temperamental diva who, in her 20-year career, revolutionized how opera was to be performed.  In 1971, after her voice was no longer viable, she gave 12 master classes at Juilliard.  They were eagerly sought after. McNally’s play is a fictional version of such a class.  

From her tempestuous life Callas brought real emotion and drama to the operatic stage, changing opera production forever. No longer would it be enough to have a glorious voice. A singer must feel and project the meaning behind the words and music. Or, to put it another way, the singer must also be an actor. In fact, her voice, though spectacular at times, in other instances was not above sharp criticism from her contemporary critics; however, her performances were memorable, inspiring worshiping devotion from her fans. “The Lisbon Traviata,” another of McNally’s opera trilogy, is about just such a band of fans, and in my mind, it is much more engaging than even a fine performance of “Master Class.” Alas, this was not a fine performance.

The story of “Master Class” is that three young singers have come to just such a class. Through asides to the audience, or perhaps to herself, and pointed criticism of the presentations, Callas tries to infuse a sense of emotion into her students. “Master Class” comes close to a soliloquy. She jumps on the first student after the young woman sings the “O” at the beginning of her aria from “La Sonnambula.” She lambastes the second soprano to develop a look and demands her to make an entrance in the grand manner. To make herself a more striking presence, Callas herself had lost 70 pounds; she expected that kind of passion, effort, and devotion from her students. Under the pressure, the young soprano goes out and vomits, only to return and survive the abuse. Lastly, a handsome tenor gets her typical attack before he can even start, but he earns her rapture after singing his aria.  

During all this she sketches out her life. In the course of the two hours we learn about her miserable childhood as the fat sister in a Greek immigrant family, the battles she had to fight artistically, the battles she had with her husband and then with Aristotle Onassis. Again and again she suffered — often from her own doing —  and is not about to go easy with the singers she is coaching. As a performer she demanded everything of herself, some say to the point of ruining her voice. As a teacher she demands the same of her students. She opens “Master Class” by asking the audience if they can hear her, quickly followed by, “If you can’t hear me it is your fault for not listening.”  It does not take long to get the picture.

So what is the problem? First of all, Ellen Geer comes across as a nice lady playing someone who was often described as a bitch. Secondly, in other productions her dialogue would have been augmented by appropriate projections relating to the content of her stories, such as the interior of La Scala; Theatricum’s large open stage under the trees does not permit that. It is also too large for the young singers voices.  The singers, as in any master class, appear individually with Callas. They and the accompanist (Cody T. Gillette) are lost in the Theatricum’s vast setting.

Given my disappointment, will I return to Theatricum Botanicum? To quote Sarah Palin (the only time I will do that!), “You betcha.” I hope next season’s playlist will feature a modern play more tailored to the setting and the actors. In the meantime, if you have not gone before, this year why not try their “Hamlet,” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” or “The Three Musketeers”? An evening at Theatricum is summer as it should be. It is not the big deal of the Hollywood Bowl, but an intimate and casual experience.

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