Master class is a master class

Today’s performance of Master Class at fortyfive downstairs has sold out but if you book now, you might be able to get in before it finishes on Thursday.

Maria Mercedes
Maria Mercedes

Terrance McNally’s play Master Class opened on Broadway in 1995. It’s based on the series of master classes presented by Maria Callas at the Julliard School in New York in 1971, which were recorded and readily available. The play is fictional, with Callas working with an imagined first soprano, tenor and second soprano. It dilutes and magnifies Callas as a teacher and icon – which is a master class in opera performance in itself – and leaves the class to go into the mind of a woman who was so sure of her reputation but so uncertain of her self.

Maria Mercedes is Callas. She is remarkable. From the second before she walked into the space, the audience were hers. It’s easy to copy Callas’s mannerisms and look, but this performance is so far beyond anything so basic. As Callas and McNally talk about how to approach and perform a character, our Maria shows how to do it – without revealing as much as a hint of technique or process. Hers is the kind of astonishing performance that leaves the actor and the script invisible, if not forgotten.

The students (Georgia Wilkinson, Robert Barbaro and Anna Louise Cole – and accompanist Cameron Thomas) are amazing young Melbourne singers who already have established careers and could not have been more perfect to represent the standard of singer who deserved a master class with Callas. Each have their moment to sing, but they bring truth and guts to the work with their portrayals of singers facing a woman who has achieved the impossible and who is as likely to tear them to pieces as give them the support to never give up. And they let their characters sing in ways that allows Callas to correct them. I dare any singer to walk away without learning something.

Director Daniel Lammin’s last work was The Cutting Boys at La Mama. Written and directed by Lammin, it was about the murder of a young woman and continued his exploration of how young men commit unthinkable violence. And here he is directing a play about an ageing woman and grand opera. Always be prepared to be surprised. As a director, he focussed on letting the text tells its story and led his actors to tell the truth about their characters through their own knowledge and experience.

I was at a matinee yesterday. Not only was it sold out, but received a standing ovation. This doesn’t happen every Saturday afternoon at fortyfive downstairs and it was such a wonderful experience to be in an audience who were as committed to the world of the play as the actors were. Mercedes performance is so engaging that there’s never a moment when the audience aren’t the Julliard students. Callas tells a singer to find the honesty in her performance; this production find the honesty that lets Master Class be so much more than a text-on-stage play.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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