For a play saturated with some of the most glorious and dramatic music ever written, it’s somehow fitting that one of the most memorable moments of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Master Class is a deep and harrowing silence. It’s late in the first act, and the legendary Maria Callas is recalling a conversation with Aristotle Onassis, with whom she had an affair late in life. Drunk with his power over her, Onassis dismisses her life of music and art and reduces her to his plaything, asking her to sing an obscene song about a whore’s exploits. Channeling Callas’s memory, Angela Iannone plays both parts—the tycoon and the diva—and ends the conversation with a terrified and empty stare.
For those few silent seconds, we are not on a ship in the Aegean, or in a New York City rehearsal room, but wholly in Callas’s mind, among the radiant memories and cold realization that there will be no more ovations, no more moments like her 1950s triumphs at La Scala.
The beauty of Terrence McNally’s Tony-award winning play—and of Ianonne’s assured performance—is rooted in this telling silence, and seems to flow into the rest of the play like so many inventive variations on its theme. What remains of an artistic life when the art is no more? Particularly for someone like Callas, whose life and career were inseparable.
In Master Class, it is the autumn of 1971—long after Callas’s retirement from the stage and six years before her death–and the Cabot Theater at the Broadway Theatre Center is a recital hall. In the tradition of musical master classes, a select few students are invited to work on a piece with a teacher as students watch. One of McNally’s brilliant conceits is that we are the students in the audience—Callas addresses us as if we are aspiring opera stars, hanging on her every anecdote and word of advice.
And as she teaches, she channels her own life through the strenuous efforts of her students. In Sophie De Palma (Melissa Cardamone), Callas perhaps sees a bit of herself—all the more because she is singing one of the diva’s signature roles, Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. And as she teaches, we see the conflicting facets of her personality emerge: the drive, the intelligence, the ego, the insecurity, and the charm.
Sophie does not impress her, but in two other students, Tony (Edson Melendez) and Sharon (Alicia Berneche), Callas sees promise, and we see the deep-seated love for the music that is at the very heart of her being. After playing the hard-to-please teacher, she eventually swoons over Melendez’s aria from Tosca. And working with Sharon on Lady Macbeth’s “letter scene” from Verdi’s opera, we see her in glorious full flower, enacting the drama of the scene even though her vocal gifts are long gone.
It’s hard to imagine another actress capturing that glory better than Iannone, who has played the role several times in the last 15 years. In the early scenes, she uses McNally’s classroom banter to give us a glimpse of Callas’s bifurcated psyche, ricocheting between imperious ego and “you-really-do-like me” charm. Channeling Callas’s stage performances–when her reveries take her back to the glory days of La Scala (we’re also taken there by Chris Guse’s stage projections)—Iannone is mesmerizing, the very embodiment of the operatic emotions that her students aspire to.
Even with her experience in the role, Iannone is no doubt helped here by the MCT’s unique approach to the production, teaming Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Jill Anna Ponasik and Carroll College theater professor James Zager as co-directors. Together, they shape a production in which you feel just how high the stakes are for someone like Callas, who lived for the glory of great drama and the adulation that went along with it.
Photos by Mark Frohna