Master Class mines Callas for artistic nuance

In the history of opera, there have been few figures more hotly debated than Maria Callas. A diva in every meaning of the word, Callas was a gossip magnet with a torrid love life and a fierce temper.

Even those who loved the American-born Greek soprano’s inimitable voice admitted there was something ugly about it and claimed that its very harshness was what made it special.

But according to director Meg Roe, Callas’ biography isn’t really the point of Master Class, the first play of the 2012-13 season to grace the Arts Club Granville Island Stage. She believes that playwright Terrence McNally is doing something much more complex than the average Hollywood biopic.

“I don’t think he wants you to walk out saying, ‘now I know more about Maria Callas,’” says Roe. “Go out and buy a book if you want to know more about Maria Callas. I think he’s actually using her as a cipher to explore and argue with himself about art and the consequences of large life choices and courage and discipline.”

Gina Chiarelli, who is taking on the formidable central role, agrees that audiences should not expect an imitation.

With particularly un-diva-like style, Chiarelli attributes the complexity of the Arts Club’s interpretation to Roe’s ability as a director. Roe has an excellent feel for the “delicate balance” between the real-world Callas and the character in the play, says Chiarelli. “I just think it takes a special person to manage that delicate balance,” she gushes.

The story, which won McNally a Tony award in 1996, takes place over the length of one of the voice master classes that Callas gave at New York’s prestigious Julliard School in 1971 and 1972, just a few years before her untimely death from heart failure.

Roe points out that at the time, Callas had no idea the end was near. McNally uses the audience’s knowledge of the diva’s imminent demise to heighten the tension by bringing them into the action. “She speaks right to them,” she says. “You’re there. You’re in the class — she yells at you. He’s definitely underlining that idea that we know something that she doesn’t know yet.”

Although Chiarelli does have experience with singing, she is not a trained opera singer. Rather, Roe chose the actress for her ability to portray the nuances of Callas’s character.

Luckily, the playwright has taken the vocal weight off of the lead by creating a score out of layered recordings of Callas’s unmistakable voice. The lead actress performs over top of Callas’s singing as if her lines were the vocals. Roe says the result is incredibly evocative.

“(McNally is) talking about culpability and guilt and how the choices in your life follow you,” she says. “I think he’s talking about art and creativity and how exciting and intoxicating being a creative person can be and how hard it can be to disengage with that. I think he’s talking about memory and love.”

Chiarelli likens the effect of the layered sound to the rush of emotions a person feels when listening to great music. “That’s why it’s so complex,” she says. “It provokes a million things that are different and specific and unique to every person.”

Roe stacked the rest of the cast with opera singers with varied experience in acting. Then, in order to make the most of her performers’ gifts, she and set designer John Webber created a space that will look familiar to anyone who has taken in a classical performance. A series of light-coloured wood panels, very much like the kind you might find in modern concert halls, hang from the back of the room to catch and amplify the sound throughout the theatre. Much of the rehearsal process has involved pinning down the sweet spots that will give every audience member a perfect sound. Director and designer hope the resulting tones will be a tribute to Callas’ lifelong pursuit of acoustic excellence.

So, although Master Class is not a straight biography, Roe believes that she is honouring Callas’ memory through McNally’s words.

“I think he honours Maria Callas in the writing, so that job is done,” says Roe. “If we honour him, we won’t be negating the work he did to give her dignity and life. We’ll be contributing to it.”

Chiarelli concurs. “Ultimately, we are hoping to honour the playwright in the same way that Maria Callas talks about honouring the composer,” she says. “That’s what we are here to serve — what has been written.”

Read it in the Vancouver Sun