'Master Class' exudes passion of its topic -- opera's Callas

September 11, 2010 

Big River 1

Sierra Repertory Theatre presents Big River: Master Class Master Class, a revealing portrait of Maria Callas Ð glamorous, larger-than-life and drop-dead funny Ð opens Friday, September 3 at the East Sonora Theatre in Sonora. Pictured: Janis Stevens (left) plays La Divina Maria Callas in Sierra RepÕs Master Class. Her students are Megan Starr-Levitt as Sharon, Raquel Sandler as Sophie and Robert Dornaus as Tony.

RICH MILLER — Rich Miller Photography

  • 'Master Class'

    • RATING: ****

    • WHERE: Sierra Repertory Theatre, 13891 Mono Way, Sonora

    • WHEN: Through Sept. 26

    • RUNNING TIME: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including an intermission

    • TICKETS: $18-$28

    • INFORMATION: 532-3120 or www.sierrarep.org Star Guide Excellent **** Good *** Fair ** Poor *

SONORA -- More than a great opera singer, Maria Callas (1923-77) was a charismatic celebrity famed for her reckless behavior.

She was known just as much for her dramatic makeover, tumultuous affair with shipping millionaire Aristotle Onassis and high-profile contract disputes as she was for her triumphs at La Scala in Milan. She died at age 53 in Paris and, according to the official Maria Callas Web site, the cause remains unclear.

Under the direction of Dennis Jones, Janis Stevens magnificently brings Callas to life in Sierra Repertory Theatre's stunning production of the drama "Master Class."

Stevens makes us feel Callas' unrelenting ambition, her deep passion for the operatic repertoire, and her pain about her failed relationships and never becoming a mother. Her performance is a testimony to the power of storytelling and demonstrates once again that you don't need special effects to make exciting theater.

Written by Terrence McNally, the 1996 Tony Award-winning play follows Callas on a single day when she gives master classes (music lessons presented in front of an audience) to three opera students at Juilliard School of Music. Inspired by real classes she gave there in the early 1970s, the play shows Callas alternately frustrated and moved by her students' work. Between her sometimes withering critiques, she reminisces about her colorful life.

The students, Raquel Sandler, Megan Starr-Levitt and Robert Dornaus sing memorable arias written by Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini and Vincenzo Bellini -- that is, whenever Stevens' Callas isn't interrupting them.

Mark Seiver skillfully accompanies the vocalists on piano, and John Stevens makes a few comedic entrances as the unnamed stagehand. The stage is nearly empty except for the piano and a chair.

At first thought, it's hard to imagine how a music lesson can become the basis for entertaining theater, but McNally pulls it off by parceling out fascinating tidbits about Callas' life slowly, without revealing too much.

The show is surprisingly funny as Callas skewers her rivals, critiques her students' fashion sense and spars with the stagehand.

The play will leave you wanting to know more. When I first saw it in 2004 in Berkeley, it inspired me to read a biography of Callas' life and to listen to her recordings.

"Master Class" shows the great sacrifices artists must make to pursue their passion and why what they do benefits us all.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can reached at 578-2313 or lrenner@modbee.com.

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