Santa Barbara Theatre Brings Terrence McNally’s Master Class to the Lobero
by Charles Donelan
Of course VH1, American Idol, and the whole popular culture industry have about driven it into the ground, but there was once a time when the word “diva” actually meant something. What it meant was an impossibly egotistical and demanding opera singer, and that’s just what Terrence McNally’s play Master Class promises to deliver — the original diva, Maria Callas, in all her delirious, late-career glory. In a master class, an opera singer or other great performer takes students onstage before a live audience, one at a time, and rips their hearts out — I mean, “critiques and coaches their performances.” Callas was legendary for making her master class students cry, and for making the kind of urgent, impassioned personal digressions that scream “diva,” no matter the language in which they’re delivered.
When Dallas Morning News music critic and world-renowned Callas expert John Ardoin sat down to transcribe his notes from Callas’s 1971 season of master classes at Juilliard, he knew he was onto something, but it wasn’t until almost 25 years later that Terrence McNally recognized the inherent theatricality of the material and transformed it into a Tony-winning show. The upcoming production at the Lobero originated at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, with Simon Levy directing and Karen Kondazian in the lead. When last produced by this team in 2004, the show won an L.A. Ovation Award for play of the year and ran for eight months.
The play takes a very simple, direct form and then runs with it. Callas sees and critiques a sequence of three singers — a soprano, a tenor, and another soprano. Each singer brings out a different side of the legendary teacher, and each leaves with a very different impression of Her Majesty, or “La Divina,” as Callas preferred to be called. In the intervals when they are not singing, and she is not berating them, Callas ruminates on her life and loves, including the one for whom she would always carry a flame, Aristotle Onassis.
When Levy and Kondazian were deep in rehearsals in 2003 for their first attempt at the piece, they got a hot tip from a friend in Santa Barbara. Marilyn Horne, vocal director of the Music Academy of the West, would be holding a master class in the Lobero Theatre. Would they like to come and observe? Of course. Although Horne’s manner included none of the wretched imperiousness that so confounded Callas’s poor sopranos, the experience nevertheless stayed with both director and star, crystallizing for them the drama and pageantry of holding a master class in such an exalted setting. As Kondazian said of the Lobero, “I think Maria would be thrilled with it.”
Kondazian brings a wealth of research, curiosity, and sympathy to her portrayal of Callas. Where others, perhaps even including the playwright McNally, see crankiness and egotism, Kondazian perceives the effects of physical deterioration — glaucoma, sore teeth, and, worst of all, the unending battle with the various throat problems that cut Callas’s career short and necessitated the outlet of teaching in the first place. Kondazian’s notices in Los Angeles were unfailingly positive, with many critics citing the well-roundedness of her portrayal and her ability to shift easily through the various stages of Callas’s life.
Levy overflows with praise, not only for his leading lady, but also for the material. “McNally is a genius with this story,” he said. “It’s got everything, and Callas follows a path that reveals her art as everything we want art to be. The things we love about art — truth and passion among them — are what we see in this play, and not just because they are discussed. The beauty of this show is that in it the really great, lasting values of art are actualized; they take place for us onstage. That’s what the music and the great writing both bring to it — this sense of being in the presence of the real thing: art itself.”
4•1•1 Master Class will be at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) from Thursday, January 4 through Saturday, January 6 at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, January 7 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at lobero.com or by calling 963‑0761.