If you are looking for perfection in a theatre performance look no further than Sandy Campbell’s channeling of Maria Callas in Ion Theatre’s production of Terrence McNally’s ‘Master Class’. It is now playing through Oct. 17th at the BLKBX Theatre in Hillcrest. You will not be disappointed!
Campbell, who sings like a nightingale herself, is no stranger to hard work, endless rehearsals and hours, no a lifetime of commitment to mastering her craft as both singer and actor. She is well known to San Diego audiences for her award winning performance as Lucille Frank in the Alfred Uhry/Jason Robert Brown musical ‘Parade’, and more recently as Fosca in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Passion’ again at Ion. Her credits are too long to list; just know that this master is taking on another master.
Maria Callas was indeed, the La Divina. From an over weight, nearsighted youngster born in the U.S. to ‘an overbearing mother’ to her struggles with poverty during the war in Greece, to her musical education there and her rise to recognition, her bel canto voice became her passport to fame, fortune and her talk of the town temperament.
She slimmed down mid career, and turned herself into a svelte and glamorous prima donna, the envy of her rivals and there were many. When her voice failed her she turned to teaching a Master Class at Juilliard College. That was in 1971. McNally’s piece picks it up during one of these sessions where she critiques three advanced Juilliard students.
Manny (Daniel James Greenbush) the Accompanist takes his place and settles in. Callas (Campbell) follows. She is dressed in a drop dead stunning and fitting to the bone expensive black pants suit, matching scarf, pearls, ‘Italian shoes’ and ‘Chanel Bag’, hair coiffed pulled back at the sides, pompadour atop and not a hair out of place and voila, CALLAS. (Mary Summerday is credited for the costumes) ‘No applause. We’re here to work’. ‘Singing is serious business.’’ You’re scared to death of me” Eh? Is that it? I don’t bite. I promise you. I bark…’
Bark she does, but not in a way you would expect. Her barks come in penetrating stares, long pauses and a wave of a dismissive hand. Her three students this day, all in fine voice, include soprano Sophie (Laura Bueno), soprano Sharon (Priti Gandhi) and tenor Tony (Alex Cammarata). And so it went as she ripped into each one. She goes after them singularly for one thing or another as her mind drifts back to her glory days, her rivals, and her relationship with Aristotle Onassis and the heartbreak that would follow their breakup. He was dumping her for Jackie Kennedy, you might recall.
With talent galore director Kim Strassburger and dramaturge Donna Ruggiero allow Campbell’s Callas to take each of the students through the rigors of the interview. Campbell couldn’t have been any more convincing or focused than she was the afternoon I saw her. And allow me to add, she is at the top of her game as the games began.
Standing tall and absolutely outstanding our own Priti Gandhi enters as Sharon Graham in a spangled blue strapless ball gown much to Callas’ amazement. ‘Sharon, That’s a beautiful gown…but don’t ever wear anything like that before midnight the earliest and certainly not to class. We’re talking about what’s appropriate. This is a master class not some Cinderella Ball’.
Sharon decides on one of Callas’ signature pieces, Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth’. Already a proven star in San Diego having appeared in several of San Diego Opera’s including the role of Musetta in the 2010 production of Puccini’s La bohème, Ms. Gandhi shows her chops the minute she opens her mouth to sing.
Enter Sophie. When Callas sees Sophie, she whispers to the audience she ‘doesn’t have a look’ and then proceeds to break her down before one complete note leaves her throat. Bueno’s Sophie comes in a sunny little merry sunshine and leaves after a frustrating attempt to impress the diva with her interpretation of Amina from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. ‘You sang it. You didn’t feel it. It’s not a note we’re after, it’s a stab of pain’.
Finally she tries to make mince meat of the tenor Tony. And while he’s not quite ready for prime he plays smug and snarky (’I have a BA in music from USC and an MFA in voice from UCLA. I Have a voice, I have a technique, I even have a B flat’). After all is said and done he finally gets the message and sings his aria, Cavaradossi’s Recondita armonia from Puccini’s ‘Tosca’. After listening to him sing, she wishes him well and waves him on his way.
Stage manager Colleen E. Keith plays the stagehand and the fetch it person as Callas demands a cushion to sit on, a footstool to rest her feet and a pitcher of water. This she does with an exasperated look, but with satisfaction when all is said and done.
Daniel James Greenbush is Manny the talent behind the piano who becomes the butt of Callas’ prodding on whether or not he’s Jewish and what he was wearing the day before this class. She thanks him but never acknowledges him as the talented musician he is.
Recordings of Callas singing some of her favorite and well- recognized arias play in the background as she takes memory trips back in time. She’s one tough, uncompromising lady, oft times quite vicious and petty when complaining about her rivals. One can almost feel sorry for her but… ‘The only thanks I ask is that you sing properly and honestly. If you do this, I will feel repaid.’
Opera lovers will delight in this production. It has so much going for it. If you love opera, great storytelling and first-rate acting, this is your kind of theatre. Enjoy.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Oct. 17th
Organization: ION Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: 3704 Sixth Ave, San Diego, CA 92103
Ticket Prices: Start at $15.00
Venue: Elaine Lipinsky Stage