Theatre Review: Master Class – Callas Crescendo, Or Passion And Pathos

March 19, 2023




Master Class / Directed by Magdalene Minaar / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg


If any number of reports and reviews, supported here by the way this play’s protagonist is written by playwright Terrence McNally, opera diva Maria Callas was such an undisputed luminary in her field that being in the same room with her at the peak of her fame and in the years that followed was rather daunting, such was acolytes’ desire to both pay tribute to her achievements and avoid being a victim of her mercilessly sharp tongue. In the South African acting landscape, Sandra Prinsloo occupies a similarly exalted position – if we had the equivalent of royal honours, she’d surely be a Dame – and commands the same level of respect, arguably also inspiring the same sort of nervousness (though she is not nearly so harsh as her character here) in those interacting with her who are keenly and justifiably aware that their own artistic impact is far less than hers. This makes the combination of player and persona especially interesting in this new production, which helps to mark the centenary of Callas’ birth.

Of equal interest, at least in respect of a parallel outcome of the play – the way it introduces and examines opera for an audience who have come out to watch theatre – is the involvement of Cape Town Opera (CTO), with the company partnering with Pieter Toerien to stage this offering and its artistic director Magdalene Minaar (a respected soprano herself) directing.

The lessons Callas gave on which the play is based – master classes at New York’s Juilliard School, in 1971 – would no doubt have had their own considerable theatricality, and McNally’s versions are adapted to not only give audiences substantial insight into Callas’ life but also to communicate a number of aphorisms about the nature of art, music and being a performer that immediately resonate with artists of any sort in the audience while hopefully also educating other onlookers regarding the sacrifices involved in real devotion to one’s craft.

The two acts share a similar structure, with Prinsloo as Callas first interacting with her students (played by CTO singers Brittany Smith, Tylor Lamani and Alida Scheepers) while supported and humoured by long-suffering accompanist Manny (CTO’s musical director José Dias; game if not persuasive as an actor, but a superb pianist) and then delivering long monologues about parts of her life, with video and audio footage of the real Callas being projected and played. That documentary aspect adds pathos to the imagined declamations of the script, particularly in the sections dealing with the pitiless cruelty of her partner Aristotle Onassis. Those can be played off against Callas’ own apparent nastiness towards her students, though as scenes develop, it becomes clear that there is warmth and a will to help others succeed below the diva’s severity and brusque humour.

Prinsloo does all that is expected of her with aplomb, creating in accent, posture, facial expression and verbal delivery a picture of Callas that makes the singer come richly alive, particularly for audience members unfamiliar with the Greek star at the beginning of the play. That increased familiarity marks the piece as successful, given that it is much more a character examination of its leading lady than a free-flowing drama. And in a South African ticket-buying scenario where opera often still lags behind other art forms, Master Class goes some considerable way to stimulating the sort of interest that might see numbers swell ahead of the next CTO (or other local opera company) production.