Friday, February 23, 2018

Masterclass - Canberra Theatre Centre

Maria Callas (Amanda Muggleton) provides artistic direction

Review by John Lombard

Success in opera may require the torment of an inner demon, and Maria Callas (Amanda Muggleton) has a horde to spur her on.  As the music teacher of this Masterclass her focus is not on any drudgery such as actually teaching singing, but on inflicting inspirational torture.  For those who lack demons to drive them, she will become one.

But Maria Callas is a genial imp, her rapid changes too comic for her to feel menacing: even the students look like they are only playing at being terrified.  Amanda Muggleton is here reprising the role of Maria Callas, and is playful and comfortable in the part.  Callas is a monomaniac, unable to get a thought out of her brain unless it has first slipped through her mouth, and her diva-esque demands are always too petty for anyone to take personally.

Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher has emphasised audience involvement in this production.  The performance began with house lights up and Muggleton engaged the audience in light-hearted banter, even slipping into one of the crowded rows to directly upbraid a few fashion choices.  Muggleton trained the audience to expect feisty explosions: every time a student made a faux pas, there was a gleeful gasp from the audience anticipating the retort.

In a singing school Billy Goat's Gruff, we see Callas give lessons to three students in succession.  The first student is the adoring Sophie (a striking professional debut by Kala Gare), an adorkable soprano who lacks presence.  The second student is the gauche Sharon (Jessica Boyd), a brilliant soprano but hampered by hilarious affectation - she attends the singing lesson decked out for a ball.  The third student is a handsome and cocky tenor (Tomas Dalton), brilliant enough that he stirs Callas' grief over lost glory.

Playwright Terrence McNally's script sets a comic tone: rather than a demanding teacher breaking down and rebuilding hopefuls, the focus here is on the humour that comes from Callas not actually letting her students do any singing.  McNally also shows how Callas is trying to help them: singing isn't enough in this business, you need grit and panache as well.  If they can't get Callas to back off, they don't have a hope.

Callas does receive dark moments in the script (set to intense moments from classical opera), which focus on her tempestuous personal life.  Well-chosen black-and-white photographs projected on the background showed us the haunted eyes of the real Callas, connecting the play to the history that inspired it.

This performance had a charming coda: Muggleton apologised to members of the audience for some of the mean things her character had said, and then yielded the spotlight so the three talented singers could perform some tunes from classical opera.

The title "Masterclass" suggests a titanic battle of wills, but this play is a light, fun comedy that delves into Maria Callas' life in a means more interesting than a tribute show.  A play about a singer who can no longer sing, Masterclass relishes its ironies with brisk and lively playfulness.