- Chris O'Rourke
Niall Kinsella, Caitríona Ní Mhurchú and Rebecca Rodgers in Masterclass. Image by Ste Murray.
She was called La Divina. A diva who demanded the strictest discipline when it came to art. For whom how you look was an expression of who are. Qualities which made Maria Callas the world’s greatest opera singer. A humble, humorous woman who never forgot the poverty from which she emerged. Who wouldn’t hear a bad word spoken against any of her many rivals. Just ask her, she’ll tell you. Tells you whether you ask her or not in Terrence McNally’s sublime character study, Masterclass. We, the audience, adoring students gathered at her feet as she dispenses wisdom and insight about art. Gossips and confesses to further muddy the scandals that were her life. Delivers quips and compliments of such scathing wit you’d dread to be on the receiving end of her insults. Callas conveyed with mesmerising brilliance by Caitríona Ní Mhurchú.
Part masterclass, part an audience with Callas, McNally’s award winning script is based on a series of masterclasses Callas gave at Juilliard between 1971 and ’72. Like Callas, it hangs around a little too long for being in love with the sound of its own voice. Like Callas, it deliberately leaves holes in her biography, many events steeped in rumour as much as fact. McNally leaning into those which serves his purpose; the body shaming, tales of poverty during the war years, the crudeness of her lover Aristotle Onassis. McNally not interested in clearing up details or reporting facts, seeking instead the underlining poetry. He, like Callas, fascinated with soul and spirit. Callas her own soloist and composer. An artist for whom discipline, concentration, and hard work go hand in hand with talent. For whom loneliness was ever present in a world where everyone revered her. Her sad denouement one of simple, devastating heartbreak.
Throughout, Paul Keogan’s lights illuminate his sparse, minimalist set whilst underscoring the encounter. From house lights that include the audience, to a dark, shadowed spot for Callas’s inner confessions, a pervasive warmth echoes that of Callas herself. Leaving Keogan’s La Scala reveal looking gimmicky in contrast, bordering on a distraction. Maree Kearn’s costumes also hugely informative: Niall Kinsella's tank topped accompanist, Rebecca Rodgers' summery sweet singer, Leo Hanna’s swaggering tenor and Kelli-Ann Masterson’s royal and ruthlessly beautiful Lady Macbeth, mirroring Callas herself. Each, under Conor Hanratty’s impressive direction, turning in exquisite performances. As does costume assistant Gillian Roberts as a stagehand whose expressions speak subversive volumes.
While Hanratty excels at eliciting excellent performances, negotiationg the compositional challenges of the thrust stage prove another matter. Too often sight lines favour one side or the other, leaving you eavesdropping rather than witnessing key moments. A blindness which punctures the play's powerful ending for many. In the absence of conflict and stakes, McNally’s story-less character study is wholly dependent on Callas. And on the performer giving Callas life. Following a long line of legendary performers, Caitríona Ní Mhurchú’s delivers a top draw Callas. A woman whose poise, grace, passion and wit has the audience eating out of her hand. Whose allure keeps you riveted. Whose flagrant egoism is awash with charm. For whom you care even when you dislike, pity when she reveals her heartbreaking vulnerability, admire as she proudly retreats, head held high after the knife gets twisted in a vicious, final rejection. Ní Mhurchú simply irresistible. And deserving of clean sight lines.
Masterclass, marking the centenary of Callas’s birth, contains such ample riches it keeps on giving. And keeps on asking. Why does art, spoken of as domination and collaboration, sound like S&M? How could Callas let Aristotle Onassis, a second rate Zorba with none of the charm, cage her like a canary? What of the diva as bully in ruthless pursuits of artistic perfection? Was her life a pyrrhic victory when the masses, like the woman who serves her tea, care nothing for art? When the best and brightest students are privileged wannabes with moderate talent and no work ethic? When singing is all technique but no soul? What was the point of a life sacrificed to art if no one cares for you? Callas might have felt hopelessly doomed, dying at fifty-three, alone and unloved as her powers waned. Yet under Ní Mhurchú’s powerful spell, Callas makes us laugh, cringe, wish things were otherwise, leaving us helplessly doomed to fall in love with her.
Masterclass by Terrence McNally, presented by Smock Alley and Once Off Productions in association with Irish National Opera, runs at Smock Alley Theatre until May 27th.
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