Left – Amanda Muggleton. Photo – Kate Ferguson
Terrence McNally’s Masterclass won a swag of Tony awards for its writer and cast when it first opened in 1995. Maria Callas, after a sensational career that saw her become the undisputed star of the world’s greatest Opera Houses, accepts an invitation to conduct a series of master classes to a select group of young vocal students at the Juilliard School in New York near the end of her life, in the 1970s. This extraordinary theatrical tribute to arguably the greatest dramatic soprano of her generation features incidental vocal music by Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, and Vincenzo Bellini.
McNally’s body of work also includes other prize winning edgy and commercially appealing pieces such as Love! Valour? Compassion! and Kiss of the Spider Woman and he writes about artists with a somewhat double-edged sword, demanding respect for the craft, but at the same time willing to expose the vagaries of temperament with a caustic tone.
A new production directed by Kingshead London’s Adam Spreadbury-Maher has been touring Australia and it is Sydney’s chance to see it at last. And it is a somewhat savage interpretation I think. Beautifully performed, and indisputably watchable – but one that reveals little of Callas beyond the self-absorbed diva breaking others to palliate the pain of a ruined voice and doomed affairs of the heart. By all accounts, and for anyone who has heard the original recordings of these sessions, this is an accurate representation of the mature Callas. She fought hard to be a performer without rival and this piece shows her to have little time for those who do not share her single-minded focus.
Amanda Muggleton plays the legendary diva Maria Callas ‘la divina’ taking centre-stage one more time, as she passes on to her students, and to us the experiences and lessons of a lifetime. We are witness to her passion and commitment and glimpse the unique strengths of her great talent as she cajoles and lectures her students, delivering both insights and insults as only a diva of her stature can get away with. Muggleton looks extraordinary, transforming herself into the hard-dyed aging legend and matching the severe look with a severe performance that takes no prisoners. There is opportunity in the text to reveal the softer creative heart of Callas in the flashbacks set against actual recordings of her performances. But Muggleton and Spreadbury-Maher are having nothing of that. They keep their Callas defiant and bitter, and there are only the briefest glimpses of the vulnerability that feeds the heart of a true artist. I craved to see more of that – but was denied much of her frailties. Nevertheless, as with most caustic personalities, her public persona is witty and amusing, and there is much laughter as Muggleton works the audience with a skill honed throughout a stellar career including much experience in one-character driven theatre experiences. She has been playing this particular role on and off for some time, and she wears the steely carapace of Callas with a deceptive ease.
But it is hard to like this Callas. She destroys the students with the same double-edged sword that McNally writes with. Some will find it justifiable criticism, some will find it unnecessarily cruel, but she is nevertheless truthful, passionate and honest. The singers playing the students have little chance to shine in the broken structure of the piece, but when they do get a chance to let fly, the voices were welcome respite for the dense text. We were treated to a mini recital after the show that revealed the true skills of the performers in these roles. Jessica Boyd’s Queen of the Night aria was stellar and did much to reinforce and reveal one of the messages of the show, that every performer needs to own the music in their own unique way.
The Studio of the Opera House is a perfect setting for the work, and by all accounts quite a similar space to the Juilliard school. There are no fancy sets or staging here. This is a simple production focusing on the strength and power of Muggleton’s intense, driven portrayal of the aging Callas.
It is not always comfortable to watch, but it is most definitely worth the effort.
Andrew Kay in Association with the Kings Head Theatre, London presents
by Terrence McNally
Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher
Venue: Studio, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 20 March - 8 April 2018
Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com | 9250 7777