An Opera with more Heart than Song

From multi award winning writer Terrence McNally, Arts Club’s rendition of Master Class brings the story of Maria Callas, an internationally recognized Opera singer, to the stage. There is something to be said for people who believe in their dreams and even more for those who achieve them – Maria Callas was one of these people.

The play is constant in its setting, a master class at the renowned Julliard conservatory, where Callas famously taught after pre-maturely leaving her career as a professional singer. Callas, played by the talented Gina Chiarelli, is introduced as a frighteningly critical and pompous woman. Throughout the play, layers of Calles’s persona are shed, leaving her with a coat of vulnerability impossible not to embrace. Not only does McNally’s play provide the narrative of a famous singer’s life, it also manages to explore the beauty of human existence.

Some of the strongest moments in the play have to be Chiarelli’s spot-lit monologues; here the journey of Callas’s character is explained through her reimaging the days of a successful youth. I like how, by referring to the audience as students, the barrier between the actors and the viewer is broken. This interesting choice of connection made for quite a few laughs as Chiarelli comedic timing made fun of, or sternly scolded, audience members for things as trivial as applauding.

Surprisingly, for a show about a major opera star, the amount of opera in the show is minimal.  The only audible singing is when Callas allows her students to showcase their “talent”, rare considering her constant disappoint in their abilities, and when audio of the diva’s own voice is played. Melanie Krueger, a soprano, plays one of Callas’s students and presents more opera than anyone else in the cast. This casting choice was no mistake for Kruegar’s voice fills the theatre, bringing dimension as well as shivers to my experience as an audience member. The simple wooden backdrop allows Chiarelli to perform monologue after monologue while images, projected onto the wooden panels, and audio of her singing envelop the audience.

The narrative of Master Class includes the rise and fall of Maria Callas’s career: her success as a vocalist, how she dealt with the spotlight and, what I found the most interesting, her passionate love life. Callas’s secret affair with Aristotle Onassis, who later devastated her by marrying Jacqueline Kennedy, lead to her divorcing her husband and also attributed to her deteriorating success as a singer. The heartbreak Callas undergoes, and the way Chiarelli interprets it, is something that is beautifully translated to the stage.

I’m just going to go ahead and say it, I’m not a crier, but this play made me tear up more times that I would like to admit. The honesty in Chiarelli’s representation of a “washed out” diva, made me invest in Callas as a character and fall deeper and deeper into the understanding of how such a respected woman became so bitter. It is precisely the stories of various hardships, ranging from issues related to body image, family and love, which evoke sympathy for Callas’s story.

This play represents how an artist’s love for their craft can occupy them for a life time. “Entrances are everything” is something Callas repeats to her students, and in the case of Arts Club’s The Master, I got everything I needed from the entrances to the exits, honesty.

You can catch Master Class at the Granville Island stage till October 27. Remember, there is always a reason why a diva is a diva.