By David A. Rosenberg
Like Floria Tosca, the heroine she so memorably portrayed in Puccini’s “Tosca,” Maria Callas lived for her art. In Terrence McNally’s absorbing “Master Class” at Music Theater of Connecticut, the formidable opera diva offers her soaring talent as well as her troubled self as coach to aspiring singers.
The play has served many leading ladies well, starting with the great Zoe Caldwell. At MTC, the fiery Irene Glezos attacks the role as if she were playing Medea and Clytemnestra combined. The actress blazes with intensity, a warrior who throws away her shield so we can see the nakedness beneath.
The occasion is, indeed, a master class modeled on those that Callas gave at Juilliard in the early 1970s. Her “victims,” as she half-jokingly calls them, are two sopranos -- one intimidated, the other feisty -- and a cool, confident tenor. Perhaps because the latter is a handsome young man, Callas is all praise.
But those poor sopranos! Callas quickly reduces one to tears, the other to throwing up in the bathroom. She criticizes how they enter a room, how they dress, how they have no “look,” even before she hears them sing. (Callas’ “look” is an expensive pants suit accessorized by jewels, scarf and purse.)
We’re meant to be strictly observers as she eviscerates her students, but always in the name of art. Speaking of her teaching methods, she declares, “This isn’t about me.” But of course it is. It’s about how she sang, how she was called “La Divina” and earned countless curtain calls. How, too, she was fired from the same La Scala where she’d once reigned as queen.
McNally also plunges into Callas’ turbulent relationship with Aristotle Onassis, one of the world’s richest and, as Callas recalls, most despicable characters. Losing Onassis (to Jacqueline Kennedy) came at a time when Callas was also losing her voice.
Although McNally coarsens her teaching methods, he’s true to her essence, to her bantering with the piano accompanist, her berating of a stolid stagehand, her admonitions to us the audience (“No applause. We’re here to work”). And, of course, to her genius.
Prowling, Glezos seems to tower over MTC’s tiny stage, as she figuratively towers over her students. As the timid Sophie, Charlotte Munson has fear in her eyes that belies her brave smile. As the determined Sharon, Emma Rosenthal musters enough courage to give as good as she gets, while Andrew Ragone exudes confidence as tenor Tony. As a bonus, they all sing beautifully.
Kevin Connors directs with flair, going for the jugular here, the funny bone there. His attention extends to details in Kevin B. Winebold’s performance as the sometimes fawning accompanist and John Flaherty’s as the seen-it-all stagehand.
In the end, it’s the portrait of the artist as a woman that counts. High-toned Callas may be on a stage but, with her hair down, Glezos reveals her as an emotionally starved human being.