At the end of her career Maria Callas gave a series of master classes at New York’s Juilliard School, classes that have since become immortalised in Terrence McNally’s play Master Class. The show is part tribute and part analysis of the great operatic diva. Callas passes on the lessons of a lifetime to her students and the audience, delivered prima donna style complete with haughty tantrums, tears and moments of self-revelation.

In the production which opened at the Subiaco Arts Centre on the weekend director Adam Spreadbury-Maher blurred the divide between audience and stage by placing students in the audience. The house lights remained up and Callas, played by Amanda Muggleton – who won a Helpmann for her 2002 interpretation of Callas – arrived on stage declaring “No applause, we are in a classroom, we are here to work.”

Master Class, Subiaco Arts CentreAmanda Muggleton as Maria Callas in Master Class. Photo © Kate Ferguson

Muggleton dominated the stage from the moment of her arrival, inadvertently picking out the critics in the audience to deliver her scathing assessment: “You have no style.”  She then stormed up the aisle, finger pointing at me: “You think I am joking?”

For one terrifying moment I thought I was back at university enduring an instrumental master class. In the performing industry the teachers coach through the lens of their experience and it is often more about the tutor than the student. In that sense the master class was the perfect vehicle to provide insight into Callas’ life. Her advice was peppered with stories and flashbacks revealing her troubled relationship with her mother and sister, her marriage to Meneghini and her unhappy affair with Greek tycoon Onassis.

There was also plenty of humour. “I won’t hear anything said against my colleagues,” Callas declared, adding wryly, “Sutherland did her best.”

Muggleton was utterly convincing with her high cheek bones, pencilled eye brows and a cracking voice (Callas battled dermatomyositis towards the end of her career). Here was a woman at the end of a career fuelled by insecurity but rich with artistic integrity. A woman who had battled every inch of the way to the towering heights she had achieved. Muggleton delivered caustic humour, flying insults and real vulnerability in a performance that never flagged.

Muggleton didn’t sing, but we did get to hear Callas and the vocal courage and wholeheartedness heard through the crackling recordings matched the character being constructed on stage.

Master Class, Maria Callas, Subiaco Arts CentreJessica Boyd and Amanda Muggleton in Master Class. Photo © Kate Ferguson

The students who emerged from the audience were appropriately fresh-faced and naive, accompanied by the genial Dobbs Franks on piano. Tenor Rocco Speranza was upbraided for not knowing the context of Recondita armonia from Tosca while the timid Kala Gare couldn’t get past “Ah” in Ah! non credea from La Sonnambula without interruption from Callas. “Anyone can sleepwalk, not anyone can weep in song.”

Jessica Boyd in her outrageous ballgown was first encouraged and then battered for her performance from Verdi’s Macbeth, and she responded by raging at Callas: “You want to make the world dangerous for everyone else just because it was for you.”

In her closing soliloquy Callas explained that if she has seemed harsh it is because she is harsh on herself. Muggleton was almost tearful as she concluded with Callas’ eloquent statement on the arts. “The world will go on without us but I like to think we made it a better place – a richer, wiser place.” The audience responded with a standing ovation.

Terrence McNally’s Master Class is at Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth, until December 2

It then plays at Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, January 5 – 27