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Ensemble Theatre: Master Class - Review by Chelsea Holland

I’ve heard about Terrence McNally’s Tony-award-winning play Master Class for years but have never seen it staged. And now I realise why – it takes a very special actor to take on the mammoth role of Maria Callas, one of opera’s most revered and enigmatic stars. This is not a play where much happens, but rather a deep dive into the character and contradictions that made La Divina who she was.

Fortunately, the Ensemble Theatre found an absolute gem in Lucia Mastrantone. Her performance as Maria Callas is masterful, instantly capturing your attention from the first entrance (the real Callas would be proud). She doesn’t leave the stage the entire performance, and at least half the show is a monologue. Mastrantone’s embodiment of Maria Callas is so fully realised, to the point that she could easily banter with the audience at the beginning of each act and improvise perfectly when there was a dropped phone or a loud cough in the audience. She speaks Italian and German, embodies Greek mannerisms, rattles off famous names of people and places, and makes it all as effortless as if she had actually lived these stories. Mastrantone brilliantly walks the line between an overbearing, straight-talking teacher and the vulnerable, young Maria surrendering herself to her lovers in flashbacks. I could have gladly watched Mastrantone read the phone book as Maria Callas. Mastrantone is supported by three actors portraying the opera students taking the eponymous master class. These actors all get a chance to show off their own beautiful voices while allowing the character of Callas to enforce her deeply held belief that there’s more to opera than just being a good singer.

I was particularly impressed by Elisa Colla as Sharon who starts shy but is pushed to her limits by the end of her time with Callas. Colla, as an actor, has no problem navigating the extremes of her character: from joy in Sharon’s breakthroughs to frustration in understanding Callas’s lessons. Her comedic moments were subtle but effective – climbing the stairs sideways in her restrictive dress or shaking her body the way Callas had moved her before in the middle of a song.

Bridget Patterson played Sophie, an insecure and naïve soprano who plays Callas’s first student “victim.” You feel for her character, getting caught up in the confusion, but also understand Callas’s frustration when Sophie doesn’t feel the music or really understand what she’s singing.

Matthew Reardon gets a comedic turn as Tony, who inspires several tenor jokes from Callas. Of the three students, he is the most confident, which I believe is astute commentary from the playwright on gender politics in the performing arts. The cast is rounded out by Maria Alfonsine and Damian De Boos-Smith who play the roles of Mani, the Accompanist, and the Stagehand. These two also provide beautiful live music on piano, clarinet and cello, and I was not surprised to learn that Alfonsine was the Musical Director and both were also Composers and Sound Designers for the play.

The Ensemble Theatre space is the perfect setting for this play; it’s intimate and shaped like a lecture hall. This feels like a real master class setting, quite different from a traditional Broadway-style theatre. Bravo to Liesel Badorrek (Director) and Miranda Middleton (Assistant Director) as well as the rest of the production team for putting together such a tight and compelling production.

If I did have any quibbles, I did feel bad for the audience members in the front row by the piano who almost got stepped on any time one of the students went behind the music stand to sing. It would have been nice to move the piano or music stand a bit more or just not use those seats. There were also a few moments during the flashback sequences that were difficult to understand with the echo effects and dim lighting.

Overall, the show is an insightful commentary on the importance of the arts and how it can transform us. I would recommend it to anyone who has heard of Maria Callas but knows nothing about her (like myself), those who know exactly who Maria Callas is and want to see her come back to life, and those who have never heard of her but have been touched by the arts. Just fair warning, you might find yourself reading the Wikipedia article on Maria Callas and listening to some of her recordings after seeing this show, as both myself and my guest did.

Photography courtousey of Prudence Upton

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