Maria Callas, once considered the greatest opera singer in the world, wasn’t just a voice. She used every part of her being to convey emotion. Callas blew out her voice after only 10 years and began taking pupils, teaching them not so much to sing, but to feel. Master Class, simply and powerfully staged by the Conejo Players in Thousand Oaks, is Maria’s story — and a fine lesson in how an artist can convey truth through sincerity.
Such a larger-than-life role, and its sometimes lengthy, emotional soliloquies, would be painful to watch were it not perfectly cast. Here, director Elissa Anne Polansky made all the right moves. In the role of Callas she placed Conejo alum Celeste Russi, former director of Conejo’s Children’s Theatre program. Like Callas, Russi knows about taking on pupils and guiding fresh talent.
Where playwright Terrence McNally wrote Callas’ character as direct, often crude and crass (particularly when reflecting on late husband Aristotle Onassis), Polansky instead uses a lighter touch. Beginning with John Eslick’s basic set that establishes our simple classroom, by the end of the first act his work blooms like a lotus into something brilliant and beautiful. It reveals not just Callas’ greatest triumph, but a shining moment for Polansky and Eslick’s vision.
Though demanding, Callas admits that her talent is second to that of the composers who put great words in her mouth. “It’s all in the music,” she repeats. Russi’s mainstay in the music is accompanist Manny Weinstock, played by Zach Spencer on a single grand piano. Again, rather than provide prerecorded music and mic-up her actors, Polansky has given her cast free rein to fill the room with natural talent.
It means that only genuine talent need apply. “Know your limitations,” Callas demands of Sophie, adorably played by Sara Calvey. And with her lone tenor, Tony “Tightpants” Candolino, Callas has her challenge met with brilliance. Having burned out so early, Callas pushes the ideal of abandon on her students, and one at a time we watch the students decide whether or not to follow her advice. Russi’s Callas comes off at times as a verbal bully, but as Callas reveals (and Russi aptly delivers), there was a lot of bullying going on in the Onassis household.
Near the climax of the second act, Russi’s Callas drops to her knees, mourning the child she’ll never have and a youth now felt only through her students. Yet she keeps up the pressure, as we see Sophie’s sailboat-pace life dragged by Callas’ speedboat personality. Sophie aches to sing and we cheer her to leap off that cliff, to soar with the music. Until Callas pushes her: “People don’t leave their homes to see us try,” Callas says. “They come to see us do.”
And every angle of the production is afforded a moment to shine. When Sharon (the hugely talented Rachael Pugh) makes her appearance in a flowing, sheer orange dress, we’re seeing costumer Beth Glasner’s triumph. The rest of the pieces are appropriately period, muted and, like the production, simple and direct.
McNally weaves Italian thru much of the dialogue to enhance the emotional intensity of Callas’ delivery. Those who speak Italian will be fine, but if your Italian is mostly limited to pizza and arrivederci, you might be looking around for the teleprompter. But true to form, if Callas and her students are doing their jobs, you feel what they’re trying to get across. And the players deliver.
A generation separated by texting, Facebook and a wi-fi lifestyle could take notes from Callas’ lesson plan. Russi’s ability to emote and to embody pure emotion from her students reminds us that music, like life, is felt, not just played, recited or made for mass distribution. “I have tried to reach you,” Callas concludes.
That she does.
Master Class through Feb. 1 at Conejo Players Theatre, 351 S. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks. 495-3715 or www.conejoplayers.org.