Award-winning thesp Jeanne Sakata strains to achieve the egomaniacal haughtiness needed to project the essence of Terrance McNally’s flawed reimagining of legendary opera diva Maria Callas, for whom “art is domination.” Sakata’s Callas stridently attempts to bully the callow vocal students in her “Master Class” sessions, but falls far short of the necessary dictatorial veracity. Helmer Jules Aaron wisely keeps the pace moving briskly along in this troublesome legiter, but fails to instill sufficient passion in the six-member ensemble to elevate the work beyond its limitations.
In this fanciful re-creation of one of her Juilliard master classes in the early ’70s, a now vocally ravaged Callas rants and raves in true primadonna fashion about everything from the temperature in the room to the lack of style of her students. Interrupting her charges’ vocal offerings often to pontificate directly to the audience (whose members are ostensibly auditing the class), Callas imperiously imposes her insights about artistic commitment and creative genius.
Sakata works hard to exude a combination of cattiness and canniness as Callas illustrates her life, loves and artistry for the benefit — and at the expense of — her students. Coming from Sakata, Callas’ efforts never appear to dominate as much as to petulantly scold her charges. She is much more believable performing Callas’ two monologue reveries (a favorite but annoying McNally device) when as a desperately vulnerable and insecure young artist, she pleads for love and acceptance from the world and from her lover, the relentlessly vulgar billionaire Aristotle Onassis.
Supporting Sakata’s Callas are a trio of singer-actors who strive with mixed success to be believable as master class students at the prestigious Juilliard Conservatory. The most successful outing is provided by Linda Igarashi who captures the persona of monumentally rigid Sharon, a youthful soprano whose lack of understanding of the work she is performing spurs ridicule from Callas. While keeping her growing ire in check, Igarashi’s Sharon offers an impressively powerful performance of Verdi’s difficult “Vieni! T’affretta” aria from “Macbeth” and then tearfully rails against the cruelty of her supposed mentor.
As Sophie, the initial teaching “victim,” Isabella Way exudes the helplessness of a trapped mouse as Callas constantly interrupts her efforts to sing. Unfortunately, Way exhibits almost no true vocal ability, which completely undermines Callas’ supposed molding of Sophie into giving an acceptable performance of Bellini’s “Ah, Non Credea Mirarti,” from “La Sonnambula.” In fact, Way never does sing the entire aria, which negates the scripter’s intent altogether.
Tony is the most underwritten role of the three, but Timothy Ford Murphy projects an appealing, Mario Lanza-like swagger as the overconfident young tenor who tries to win Callas over with his charm rather than his voice. Once goaded to the task, he does manage a listenable, if not always pitch-perfect, “Recondita Armonia” from Puccini’s “Tosca.”
Marc Macalintal offers excellent musicianship as vocal accompanist Manny, but is a bit too undernourished to be effective as the supposed selfless, caring individual who attempts to soothe the pain inflicted by Callas on her charges. Alden Ray provides much-needed comic relief as the underwhelmed stagehand who reluctantly caters to Callas’ desires.