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Master Class at Spinning Tree Theatre

The Spinning Treat Theatre tackles Terrence McNally's portrayal of Maria Callas.

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Maria Callas, the legendary and controversial singer, lived for her art. In opera she found — and conveyed to her audiences — the vast rewards to head and heart that masterful drama delivers. The Callas we meet in Terrence McNally's Master Class, now at Spinning Tree Theatre, is both an exponent of that passion and a victim of it.

McNally's expertly written 1995 work is based on a series of tutorials that Callas taught at New York's Juilliard School over several months in 1971 and 1972. Her career was in decline by then, her voice lost, yet she was no less demanding — of others, of the spotlight.

Directed here by Michael Grayman, Cynthia Hyer is a commanding yet vulnerable Callas, past her prime but still self-obsessed. She's jealous of "colleagues," preoccupied with the past — its hardships and pain as well as its triumphs. Standing before her students, she is no longer in pre- and postwar Europe, in poverty and wanting for an orange, or performing for Nazis in Greece. She's not the ugly, fat Greek girl anymore. Whether these young people idolize Callas, all are eager to learn from her, the great la Divina. She's a hard one, tough on them, expecting as much of them as she did of herself. Maybe more.

Her outsized ego won't let her recall the name of the class's accompanist. Manny (played by Music Director Tony Bernal) and Callas have worked together just the day before, yet she remembers only what he wore. Her eyes are as trained for the theatrical as her ears, after all. So she's also annoyed with us, the audience (whom she addresses as her class). She points to us and complains: "You need a look. You don't have a look." She's tough but funny — very funny.

Her first student, Sophie, isn't amused. Callas doesn't even approve of her name (which Callas thinks is inappropriate for an opera artist), and the bright-eyed, somewhat clueless young soprano lacks the skill and discipline that Callas expects. She tries to measure up but withers under Callas' scrutiny, her repeated interruptions as she tries to sing. (Actress and writer Natalie Liccardello, playing Sophie, reveals yet another talent: singing.) "Feel!" Callas repeats while berating her for her dress, for not being prepared, for not having a pencil. (I wanted to lend her mine.) "Feel!"

Poor Sophie, trying a difficult aria, can't get past a starting O. And Tony doesn't get a whole lot further when it's his turn next to the piano, though he manages several lyrics before Callas shuts him down. But he's thrilled that he made it that far and can barely contain his enthusiasm. The ambitious Tony (given a very funny and skillfully sung portrayal by Vigthor Zophoniasson) blurts his admiration for Mario Lanza and belts out a melody. Callas is moved by this tenor. The moment reminds her of something — or someone — else.

McNally's Callas often loses herself in memory. In Spinning Tree's staging, Paul Tilson's lighting design sets off the star's soliloquies. As she mentally leaves the room, changes in hue show different parts of her past, underscoring reveries that reveal as much about this woman as do her interactions with the students.

Sylvia Stoner, also with considerable talent and opera chops, is the last soprano to bear Callas' searing analysis. (Even the singers' entrances undergo critique.) Yet Callas is also taken by her ability, and this time the encounter looses one of her longer recollections (aided, not for the only time here, by recordings of Callas that elicit chills). Everything she sacrificed, she says, has been for her art, achieved through "technique, discipline, courage."

As she admonishes her charges to pursue their own technique and discipline and courage, she seems oblivious to the love remaining right in her midst. McNally's play uncovers Callas at a sad point in her life, her too-short career behind her and a much-publicized love affair with Aristotle Onassis in ruins. Yet these depressing facts are eclipsed by this play's intelligence and wit — and depth of feeling. All of this is brought to music-studio life at Spinning Tree, where we get a peek inside the soul of an artist. Because it's all about the art. Everything for the art.

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