By Richard Ades
Several recent movies have been suspected of bending historical reality to suit their dramatic needs.
Was LBJ really as hostile to civil rights as he’s portrayed in Selma? Was World War II code breaker Alan Turing as socially inept as he seems in The Imitation Game? And what about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle? Was he depicted with warts-and-all accuracy in American Sniper?
The answer to such questions is nearly always “no.” For better or worse, scriptwriters often reshape real-life personalities and events for the sake of a good storyline.
Playwrights are no different. It’s been suggested, for example, that the title king in Shakespeare’s Richard III wasn’t nearly as villainous in real life. History has its place, but the plot must be served.
Which brings me to Terrence McNally’s Master Class, now being revived by CATCO. Based on an actual series of workshops Maria Callas led at Julliard in 1971-72, it portrays the former opera star as so wrapped up in her ego and her painful past that she fails to realize the effect her brutal critiques are having on her vulnerable students.
When I first saw a touring production starring Faye Dunaway in 1997, I wondered why McNally would portray a singer he’d long admired in such an unflattering light. After reading a 2011 piece by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, I wondered even more. Transcripts of the actual Julliard classes, according to Tommasini, prove the real-life Callas was demanding but far more supportive and sensitive than McNally’s fictional version.
The only explanation for the makeover is that McNally felt Callas would be a better dramatic character if she were preoccupied by memories of her former stardom and failed relationships, especially with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. To me, though, the play’s brief flashbacks to her glory days are less satisfying than her best moments in the “present.”
These mainly involve two students who show up in the second act and manage to pull valuable advice from Callas and incorporate it into their renditions of dramatic arias. In director Joe Bishara’s CATCO production, Daniel A. Lopez is personable as tenor Tony Candolino, while Sara Pardo delivers the night’s most glorious operatic performance as soprano Sharon Graham.
Act 1, which is dominated by Callas’s diva-like introductory remarks and a lengthy teaching session with soprano Sophie DePalma, is less compelling. Ilona Dulaski is haughtily cranky as Callas, but she’s isn’t quite regal enough to carry off the diva-hood routine, while Alexandra Kassouf’s Sophie is an unconvincing caricature of meekness when she isn’t displaying her lovely singing voice.
It should be noted that those comments are based on Thursday night’s preview performance, when Act 1 was hampered by minor stumbles and an overall lack of energy. It’s very possible that things will improve in subsequent performances.
Serving as an effective sounding board for Callas when he’s not tinkling away on a grand piano is Quinton Jones as the Accompanist, while Andrew Protopapas makes a few brief appearances as the surly Stagehand.
The serviceable wood-paneled scenery is designed by Edith Wadkins. Marcia Hain designed the costumes, including the fancy gown worn by Sharon and belittled by Callas.
Besides the fine singing by Pardo’s Sharon and the other students, Master Class is at its best when Callas shares her philosophy on what it takes to be an operatic artist. It’s hard work, she stresses, requiring much more than mere musical technique.
These moments, at least, seem faithful to the world-renowned singer who inspired McNally’s play.
CATCO will present Master Class through March 1 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $30 Thursday, $45 Friday-Saturday and $41 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.