A private invitation into the mind of the world’s most influential diva.

fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne

August 20, 2014

A reimagining of a diva in her twilight years, Masterclass is a play based on the renowned 1970s masterclasses given by Maria Callas at the Julliard School. Callas enters, still possessing the towering presence that crowned her ‘La Divina’. Over the two-hour production, Masterclass offers a real-time snapshot of Callas as she works with three very different students. In turn, each incites the tempestuous Callas to recall private memories of her own past.

Maria Mercedes has obviously spent much time studying the gestures and idiosyncratic accent of the singer, as she is eerily reminiscent of the late diva.  The stage is bare save for a grand piano and a cushionless stool. The houselights remained on as Callas warmly greeted the audience as witness to the afternoon’s masterclass. She urged no one to applaud, but reveled in the attention. Callas’ banter was quicksilver and turbulent, striking a stunned silence at one moment, and eliciting a rolling laugh in the very next breath. Cameron Thomas was warm and likeable as the obliging accompanist Manny Weinstock.

The glue of this performance was the very palpable chemistry between Maria Mercedes and the three young singers (in order of appearance), Georgia Wilkinson (playing Sophie De Palma), Robert Barbaro (Tony Condolino) and Anna Louise Cole (Sharon Graham).  All three have developing, but charming voices. One by one they came ready to work, but one by one Callas found them lacking. Each possessed individual faults found universally in young singers. Most of all, Callas probes them to connect with the emotional lifeblood of their operatic counterparts, a skill that Callas was peerless in achieving herself. In her eagerness to demonstrate this submersion in a role, Callas hallucinates scenes from her own past. 

It was through these extended soliloquies that Mercedes revealed her extraordinary emotional dynamics. Each scene uses operatic arias as incidental music, and this only heightens the environment. Mercedes executes crescendos through these monologue scenes, hitting the apex each time. At times, Mercedes is required to imitate both Callas’ former husband and lover, shifting quickly between the two characters in a rapid-fire dialogue. While overall quite affective, the conversation about her pregnancy with Aristotle Onassis was too fast, as key emotional moments weren’t given time to land.

One doesn’t need to be familiar with Callas’ story to enjoy this thrilling and ambitious production.