Review: Master Class

Jennie Rupp (left) and Natalie Cordone in Master Class   Photo by Miki Galloway

By Larry Laneer
September 16, 2021

Lyric Theatre continues to ease theater back into existence with an engaging production of Master Class by Terrence McNally, who died last year of Covid. Directed by Michael Baron at the Water Stage, this play with music brings to life the great Greek soprano Maria Callas, La Divina to fans.

Master Class reportedly was inspired by an actual master class Callas gave at Julliard shortly before her death in 1977. I’ve sat in on some master classes, and the play looks authentic. Callas hails from the tear-them-down-so-you-can-build-them-back-up school of pedagogy. She refers to students as “victims” and, then, immediately says it’s a joke. She’s imperious and in turn both solidly confident and paralyzingly insecure. She asks her husband before a performance if he has “paid the claque.”

In a scene in each act, the lights change, and Callas is alone on stage. Her superego turns off, and we see her backstory. Callas survived the Second World War in Athens, required to perform for Nazis. She has to decide between having a pencil for music lessons or a rare orange for food. She opts for the pencil (every music student will get the joke). Both earthy and disturbing, the scenes give one an appreciation for the nearly overwhelming circumstances Callas overcame for her art. It explains why she considers the theater and stage and opera as sacred. In opera, these would be called “mad scenes.”

So, the play depicts in gritty detail the life of a great artist. The actor playing Callas carries the entire two-and-a-half-hour show practically by herself. The supporting cast has few lines of dialog and not much singing (Callas keeps interrupting them).

Lyric has brought in actor/singer Natalie Cordone for the job (she and Baron are fellow theater alumni from Wake Forest). The role is like a Paganini concerto for violinists. If you can do it, it’s a great chance to show off skill and artistry. Cordone gives one of the most remarkable performances seen here in many seasons. You have to admire an artist who can memorize pages and pages of dialog and deliver them with convincing force and feeling. Cordone never leaves the stage once she enters (Callas is big on entrances). Cordone sings a few bars of Verdi and makes one want to hear more. I don’t know of many roles in modern drama that require this much sheer stamina. Music and theater students should take the rare opportunity to see this play and Cordone’s performance.

Lyric has cast three sets of performers in the roles of Callas’s students, all of whom are current music students or recent graduates. At the reviewed performance, Jennie Rupp,  Macey Trussell, and Christopher Richie, all from Oklahoma City University, were notably fine. With few lines of dialog, they nail the clueless awe and nervousness of students in the master class of a living legend.

Jan McDaniel plays Manny, the pianist who accompanies the master class. McDaniel may have played this part in real life. His Manny is both flattering and aloof.

Uldarico Sarmiento’s scenic design and Fabian J. Garcia’s lighting take us into a modern, woody recital hall, as much as is possible on the outdoor Water Stage. Jeffrey Meek’s costumes are tastefully fashionable for Callas and accurately inappropriate for the singers, just what you would expect from college students on a tight budget.

The actors wear microphones, and the sound is amped up enough to drown out their voices most of the time. You see the actors on stage and hear their voices coming from the right side of the theater. This diminishes the experience, but under the circumstances, it may the best Lyric can do. It would be nice to see this play unamplified at the Plaza Theatre.

As far as I know, this 1995 play has never been staged here before. I don’t know why it has taken so long. Maybe the word “opera” scares producers and artistic directors.

Late in the second act, Callas asks the audience what we would do without artists. When McNally wrote the play, it was a rhetorical question. Now that we’ve experienced a year and a half largely without art, we can answer the question in fact. Without artists and the arts, we live in a grossly bleak world. To live a full life, we need the arts as much as we need food, water, and air. Theatergoers can now partake at the Water Stage.

Master Class by Terrence McNally
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through October 3
Myriad Botanical Gardens Water Stage
301 W. Reno Ave.

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