Photo – Kate Ferguson
In this new production of Masterclass by the Kings Head Theatre, London, Amanda Muggleton reprises the role of Callas that she first played in Melbourne in 1999. It is an opportunity for those of us, who didn’t see it then, to experience an unusual piece of theatre, a glimpse into the world of opera, and a powerhouse performance by a fine English-Australian actor.
In the early 1970s, towards the end of her career, opera diva Maria Callas ran a series of master classes for promising singers at the Juilliard School, New York. Terrence McNally’s 1995 play Masterclass draws on these real life events to explore the character of Callas, the ultimate prima donna, and showcase the talents of any actor who dares to take the role!
Muggleton rises to the challenge, using her considerable skills – strong physicality, finely tuned dramatic timing and a huge emotional range – to bring to life the troubled and brilliant diva in all her moods. ‘La Divina’ is brought down to earth as a tragicomic figure, recreated for our entertainment, but no less diminished as a superb and passionate artist.
But, although the play consists mostly of Callas’s monologues and puts the focus on its leading actor, it is in the writing and the direction (by Adam Spreadbury-Maher) that the magic is first brewed. Callas is a self-obsessed monster, ranting endlessly about her past successes, bemoaning her disappointments and grievances, and spitting out vituperative remarks that would break any singer’s resolve. There is a risk that the audience will hate her. But the structure of the play ensures we don’t. From the outset, the fourth wall between performer and audience is breached, and we are included in the masterclass, under the spell of the dominatrix.
In the intimacy of the Lawler Theatre, the show starts off casually, with the house lights still up and Muggleton engaging in caustic banter with her audience, some of it improvised, warming to her role as Callas. But once the character of the prima donna is well established, she calls in the first student or ‘victim’ to face her formidable tutor.
The three student singers, played by Kala Gare, Rocco Speranza and Jessica Boyd, who are vocal students or early career singers in real life, present us with three distinct persona, ranging from a girl paralysed with nerves to a boy’s conceited over-confidence. But nothing will satisfy their mentor, who rides roughshod over their efforts, often stopping them after the first note.
The drama depends on this tension. Will the students get to sing? And if they do, will they survive the ordeal? But the real drama comes as a surprise. It is when Muggleton demonstrates how the aria should be sung that, in spite of little singing involved, she conveys the operatic themes of love, loss and betrayal, tapping a deep emotional well. As a recording of Callas’s La Scala performance soars, she launches into a dialogue between herself and ‘Ari’ Onassis, telling the story of their relationship, revealing the diva’s vulnerability, and bringing Act One to a stirring climax.
Act Two follows the same format and sustains the drama and comedy, this time with a dramatisation of Callas’s marriage to Giovanni Battista Meneghini as the emotional highlight. But it is not over until the fourth wall comes crashing down, Muggleton has shed the persona of Callas and the three vocalists are given their moment in the sun. Each sings a complete aria, culminating in a bravura rendering by the delightful Jessica Boyd of the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria from The Magic Flute. All in all, it is enough to convert any non-believer to the religion of opera.
Andrew Kay in association with The Kings Head Theatre London presents
by Terrence McNally
Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Lawler
Dates: 8 – 27 January 2018
Tickets: $75.20 – $96.55
Bookings: www.mtc.com.au | 03 8688 0800