Review: Exuberant Annette Miller as Maria Callas in Master Class at Shakespeare & Company
by Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray
Gail M. Burns: I am not an opera buff like you, but you cannot lead a cultutally literate life and not have heard of Maria Callas (1923-1977). Nor can you be a theatre geek and not have heard of Terrence McNally’s 1996 Tony winner Master Class.
At first my concern was that it would be an uncomfortable play, in which Callas, presented here during the master classes in voice that she taught at Juiliard in 1970 and 1971, towards the end of her astonishing life and career, eviscerated her students while wallowing in her own past miseries. I was wrong on both counts. Callas is portrayed as a diva, but a human one, and the side trips into her personal and artistic experiences are illuminating.
Larry Murray: It’s not even the tip of an iceberg, it’s just one chip of her amazing life portrayed by a fabulous Miiller. I learned a lot, too. Somehow it escaped me that Maria Callas was born in America of Greek parents and died in Paris at age 53. Her heart just gave out. In that brief half century, she lived a life filled with controversy, became a legend, and is now almost a myth. Terrence McNally’s play barely touches on more than a few moments of her life, there is enough material there for a theatrical franchise. In fact McNally wrote The Lisbon Traviata about her performances there in 1958. So far that makes two days of her life that have been dramatized.
Watching the play, we see two hours of her life as interpreted by Annette Miller and the experience was spellbinding.
Gail: Annette Miller has long been Shakespeare & Company’s go-to actress for penetrating stage portraits of larger than life ladies – Golda Meir (Golda’s Balcony Review), for whose portrayal Miller won the 2002 Eliot Norton Award, Diana Vreeland (Full Gallop Review), and Martha Mitchell (Martha Mitchell Calling Review), just to name a few – and she never disappoints. Miller, who is a striking woman in her own right, manages, with very little cosmetic legerdemain, to look enough like the divas she is embodying that her forceful stage presence can do the rest. Looking like Golda Meir and like Maria Callas is a trick! I believed her completely in both roles.
Larry: The playwright played fast and loose with some of the facts, but Miller did more than scratch the surface to find the essence of the woman, who everyone treated as a diva, something she strongly encouraged in other opera singers too. But of all the lines she spoke and moments recreated, it was Maria’s humility in one area, she deferred her own will to the intentions of the composers of opera. For her the ultimate job of the artist was not to subjugate her acting to singing, nor vice versa, but to find the artistic golden mein where both acting and singing are in service to the composer. Annette Miller juggled the demands of philosophy, music and the art of presenting yourself like a juggler. Each time she swiveled her head or turned on her heel, it seems we saw a new facet of her Callas.
Gail: She loved to tell people how to dress so they would be memorable. I suspect that Maria Callas would have been memorable wearing a potato sack. Here Govane Lohbauer has Miller in a severely tailored all-black pantsuit. Callas lived during a time when women wore heavy eye make-up, and of course on stage in an enormous opera house everyone wears tons of the stuff, but the fact that her striking eyes are easily “painted on” gives Miller a quick Callas look. However Miller does not resemble Callas physically, and I wished that Lohbauer’s costume design had been more of the period and of the woman. Her costumes for the two young sopranos Callas tutors – Sophie De Palma (Nora Menken) and Sharon Graham (Deborah Grausman) – are period stunners, but of the wrong period. They look more late 1950’sthan early 1970’s. The two men, Manny (Luke Reed), the studio pianist and Tony (Alec Donaldson), the brash young tenor, are dressed most nondescriptly. 1970/71 was a wild time for clothes. I would have enjoyed more of a true period feel from the talented Lohbauer.
Larry: One of the things we discover is that Callas had her dark moments, too, when the lights faded and we were allowed into her innermost thoughts.
Gail: McNally focused those two soliloquies – one in each act – around Callas’ relationship to her art and to Aristotle Onassis. Oddly, he never mentions that, by the time of these classes, Onassis had left Callas to marry Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, although I understand that he still met Callas for regular rendez-vous throughout their lives.
But I found the statements about art that McNally gave to Callas far more interesting than her yearnings and squabbles with any of the men in her life. I do not know anough to say if what moved me were Callas’ true words or McNally’s, but the musings on the confluence of art and life were powerful and very true.
Larry: Through Miller and director Daniel Gidron we see her interact with aspiring singers, and she is not always kind to her students, who were looking for comments on their singing abilities, not their background knowledge.
Gail: The trickiest part of mounting this play is the integration of the music and the text. You need to have an actor who can actually play the piano – arias from Verdi’s Macbeth, Puccini’s Tosca and Bellini’s La Sonnambula – and you need to have singers who can actually act. Reed, Menken, Donaldson and Grausman all performed beautifully, fulfilling the desires of many audience members to actually hear some fine oepra well sung. Miller cannot sing, which added to Gidron’s challenge, and hers, in presenting this show.
Here is a link to one of the arias covered in Master Class, Jennifer Lamore singing The Letter Scene from Verdi’s “Macbetto”
Larry: This is where Master Class becomes more like an acting class as so much of what Callas puts forward to her students seems to be an insistence that they fully inhabit the roles they are singing. So in the play, she comes off as a bit of a bully, don’t you think?
Gail: Apparently she wasn’t in real life, but that would make for a dull play, so McNally gave his Callas much diva-style fire. Most of the humor of the show stems from this decision – that and the comedy schtick of having an oblivious, gum-snapping stage-hand (Josphine Wilson) appear periodically, albeit inevitably late, to answer Callas’ cries for creature comforts such as foot-stools, pillows, and water.
Larry: We might call the set by Patrick Brennan simple and functional, but it gave the diva lot of room to pace and her young charges to inhabit their respective roles. And next week it will share the space with the other show, Heros, running in repertory with it. Each change of show means the piano has to be moved out and new elements moved in. Why do people think putting on a show is so easy?
Gail: I think putting on THIS show would be a damned nightmare! Such specific talents are called for and it all needs to work together seamlessly. The set really does just need to stay out of the way. Shakespeare & Company moved the press opening for Master Class back a week to and I think it was a wise move. Miller and company needed that extra time to smooth out any glitches and get the technical kinks out.
Larry: Over the years Shakespeare & Company has done a lot of unusual plays, and with Mengleberg and Mahler in their past one has to wonder if they are thinking more about musical-themed works, what with Tanglewood in their backyard all summer long.
Gail: Well its a smart choice, considering that many Berkshire theatre-goers are also avid music buffs. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing these arias, which weren’t familiar to me, well sung but with the illuminating interruptions by Callas clarifying motivation and translating the Italian. You mentioned how impeccable Miller’s Italian was. I have never studied that language, but here I was struk by its lyric beauty.
Larry: This gem of a production makes me think of inviting friends to come and see it. And I am not alone. There are a lot of Tanglewood visitors who will be making the trip to Shakespeare & Company to see Master Class. It bodes well for a summer of magnificent music, thrilling theatre, first class hostelries, and gorgeous surroundings, and you know, that’s what the Berkshries are all about.
Shakespeare & Company presents Master Class by Terrence McNally, Scenic Design by Patrick Brennan, Costume Design by Govane Lohbauer, Lighting Design by James W. Bilnoski, Sound Design by Michelle Pfeiffer, Stage Manager – Maria Gray, Directed by Daniel Gidron. Cast: Luke Reed as Manny (Accompanist), Annette Miller as Maria Callas, Nora Menken as Sophie, Josephine Wilson as Stagehand, Deborah Grausman as Sharon, Alec Donaldson as Tony. Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA. May 24 – August 18, 2013. About two hours and twenty minutes including one fifteen minute intermission. www.shakespeare.org Box Office: 413-637-3353