Famed opera diva Maria Callas, one of the most gifted performers of the 20th century widely regarded as La Divina, comes alive through a satisfying lens at the Loft Theatre as seen in the Human Race Theatre Company’s production of Terrence McNally’s 1996 Tony Award-winning drama “Master Class.”
Fluidly directed by Scott Stoney and set in the mid-1970s, McNally’s work provides a compelling, fantasized look at a voice master class Callas conducts at the Julliard School, based on actual accounts from her 23 sessions held during the 1971-72 school year. The strengths of her remarkable voice long gone having retired in the early 1960s, Callas resorts to teaching to sustain her as she molds the next generation hoping to reach her level of acclaim. In her eyes, artistry, discovery, expression, meaning, intonation, history, truth, and commitment are paramount. While instructing three aspiring singers, she engagingly reflects on her humble beginnings, formidable lessons, supposed rivals, topsy-turvy romances, and lauded roles. But above all, she stresses the importance of education. “You’re not in a theater,” she warns at the outset. “You’re in a classroom.”
Mierka Girten, a Cincinnati native and Wright State University alumna, fittingly embodies the cool, stern, opinionated, and intimidating bluntness overflowing within Callas’ superiority and influence. Sophisticatedly dressed by costumer Hyun Sook Kim in sparkling black attire accented with strings of pearls, Girten, who looks the part and, at 47, is roughly the same age as Callas when she conducted her sessions, astutely relies on vocal dexterities and mannerisms to capture the role’s dramatic sensibilities. As an actress living with multiple sclerosis and its complications, she navigates the role gingerly by using the script and holding notes throughout. Nevertheless, her acting choices are far from precarious, particularly in scenes detailing Callas’ fascinating coaching and the time she recalls her affair with shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
Wonderfully assisted by pianist/musical director Sean Michael Flowers as Emmanuel Weinstock, Girten shines opposite three fantastic vocalists. As confident tenor Anthony Candolino, the charming, sunny Blake Friedman, who appeared as tenor soloist in “Liebeslieder Walzer” with New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, dynamically interprets a portion of Puccini’s “Tosca,” which Girten guides with delightfully descriptive beauty. Singing Bellini’s “Sonnambula,” Jeremey Carlisle Parker, a Dayton native and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music alumna, brings personable unease and reticence to her endearing portrayal of timid soprano Sophie De Palma. Recent Wright State University alumna Cassi Mikat, tremendous last season in “Sondheim on Sondheim,” delivers another vocally thrilling performance as the flummoxed yet determined soprano Sharon Graham. Sharon’s shrewd choice of the letter scene from Verdi’s “Macbeth” invigorates Callas to the point of dissecting the piece from entrance to epiphany while conjuring her stellar Lady Macbeth at La Scala.
Stoney, briefly appearing as a stagehand, also assembles a first-rate artistic team including scenic designer Scott J. Kimmins (whose 17th design for the Race exudes the proper look and feel of an academic studio), lighting designer John Rensel, sound designer Jay Brunner, and the aforementioned Friedman as dialect coach. Projections are effectively incorporated as well when Callas recalls her past.
“How can you have rivals when no one else can do what you do?,” Callas colorfully questions. McNally’s striking assessment of one of the world’s singular talents is an insightful guide to grasping her legacy and the music she adored.
“Master Class” continues through June 26 in the Loft Theatre of the Metropolitan Arts Center, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are 8 p.m. June 15-18 and 22-25; 2 p.m. June 19 and 26; and 7 p.m. June 14 and 21. The production runs 2 hours and 10 minutes including intermission. Tickets are $40 for adults, $37 for seniors, and $20 for students. A “While We’re On the Subject” post-show talkback featuring special guest Thomas Bankston, artistic director of the Dayton Opera, will be held following the June 19 matinee. For tickets or more information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org or ticketcenterstage.com.