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Real lessons in `Master Class' don't involve singing

February 09, 2007|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

"People are forgetting how to listen," says Maria Callas, addressing a theater full of people who have come to see her under the pretense of witnessing a Juilliard master class in singing. "If you can't hear me, it's your fault. You're not concentrating."

We laugh, but we also detect the ache beneath the imperious mien. Before this session is over, that ache has become an open wound. That collision between life and art informs "Master Class," Terrence McNally's Tony-winning meditation on the iconic opera singer. As the sturdy East West Players revival demonstrates, "Master Class" remains a remarkable construct, and it gives actress Jeanne Sakata a rich opportunity.

A lifelong Callas fan, playwright McNally fashioned "Master Class" for Zoe Caldwell, who triumphed in the role at Circle Repertory Company, the Mark Taper Forum and on Broadway. "Master Class," which draws its premise from Callas' real-life Juilliard master classes in 1971 and 1972, is a fantasia on the costs exacted by the pursuit of greatness.

We are attendees at the Juilliard hall (well realized by Don Llewellyn's austere set design), where accompanist Manny (the selfless Marc Macalintal) arrives first. After a pregnant pause, the stage-left door opens to reveal Callas (Sakata). She waves away our applause with clipped impatience: "You're here to observe the students. Forget about me." As if.

From there, Callas hectors and bullies her audience, students and Alden Ray's unimpressed stagehand, while her life and career intrudes through biting asides and monologues. Her first "victim" is nervous Sophie (Isabella Way), whose hopeless outfit and selection from Bellini's "La Sonnambula" spur some of McNally's most wickedly witty observations. Sophie finally gets to the aria, only to freeze as Jeremy Pivnick's lighting dims. The inimitable Callas voice creeps into Max Kinberg's sound design, as the diva relives her legendary La Scala triumph and affair with Aristotle Onassis.

This coup de theatre closes Act 1, and McNally has more bravura tricks ahead. After terrorizing ornately gowned Sharon (the excellent Linda Igarashi), Callas skirmishes with, then succumbs to egotistical Tony (Timothy Ford Murphy), a tenor. Then Sharon returns, to tackle Verdi's Lady Macbeth. The subsequent battle of wills leads to heartbreaking recollections, a verbal attack and a touching summation.

Although Sakata's innate affability makes her have to work to unnerve, her timing, presence and emotional resources are imposing. Those expecting a Callas imitation, or a Caldwell imitation, are missing the point. "Master Class" isn't an impersonation, but an expression. Sakata meets the measure of the role's demands, and Igarashi, in the role originated by Audra McDonald, is a worthy adversary in voice and interpretation.

True, Way's Sophie is still finding her character, and Murphy, somewhat over-parted, succeeds more on boyish fervor than tenorial brio. Although director Jules Aaron lands the climaxes of both acts, an over-studied quality permeates the proceedings. Still, as with Caldwell at the Taper, or Karen Kondazian in the 2003 Fountain Theatre revival, it's hard to be unaffected by Sakata, or by McNally's view of Callas. She says at the end, "I have to believe that what we do as artists matters. If I didn't believe that.... " Her voice trails off, but the sentiment lingers. So does "Master Class."


`Master Class'

Where: David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: March 4

Price: $35 to $40

Contact: (213) 625-7000 or

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

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