A Soprano Scorned

Anna Gangai as legendary opera diva Maria Callas, and Krista Boone as a student in the Church's Master Class.
Master Class
8pm Thu-Sat; dinner at 6pm
Through Nov 18
$20 show only; $36.95 show + dinner
The Church Bistro & Theatre
1150 S. Alamo
She floats in wearing a printed silk scarf and flowing cardigan over a Manhattan uniform of black. She has a certain air about her - a foreign, artistic aura. She's Maria Callas, one of the most controversial voices in opera, and you might be her next student-victim.

At least that's the premise of Terrence McNally's Tony-winning play Master Class. The author of Where has Tommy Flowers Gone?, (the controversial) Corpus Christi, and The Lisbon Traviata, which revolves around an argument about Callas, this time imagines "la Divina" during her '71-'72 stint at Julliard as the picture of a tortured artist: Broken heart. Broken voice. Walking contradiction. She is a woman always living in the past, singing vicariously through the students she criticizes, and compensating for her lost gift (and self-esteem) with "personality" and self-centeredness. But hey, you'd be crabby too if your lover left you for Jackie O. (Hint: He's responsible for the "O.")

The role of Callas is not for the weak. Like all good college teachers, she must have eccentricity, humor, a forgivable amount of brutality, and the ability to keep you interested in what she's saying for two hours. Anna Gangai has it, and the accent to boot. Not a moment passes when you aren't completely engrossed - and that's exactly what Callas would want: All eyes on her.

The Church Theatre's production is interactive and multi-leveled, in a way I can't imagine it on Broadway. For example, Gangai, as Callas, describes the theater as a "holy place" as she performs in a room that was once a sanctuary. Meanwhile, a captive audience serves as her master class. She beckons us, her vocal pupils, to scoot forward; gets face to face and dares the bored to leave. It's just like being in a classroom again: the professor stomping up and down the aisle, the verbal bitch-slapping, the tears.

Callas's oft-forgotten accompanist is a heard-but-seldom-seen Patrick Finley, doing what he does best - ivory tickling - as he is cleverly hidden by a curtain for the majority of the show. (As if anyone but Callas mattered!) Her students, Sophie de Palma, Anthony Candolino, and Sharon Graham, are portrayed with doe-eyed naivety by Helena Hernandez, Jerry Cordova, and Krista Boone, respectively. Their voices are so lovely, you almost expect Callas to capture them in a shell necklace, Ursula-style. Instead she internalizes, drifting into her glory days.

William J. Stewert's choice to spotlight Callas as she moves into reverie is appropriate, but the transition back into the real world is visually jarring in a way that doesn't quite flow with the action.

The play itself, not the production, loses favor with me (yeah, yeah, Tony shmony) because it lacks a real ending. As enthralling and witty a show as it may be, the "find out what you're meant to do in life" monologue at the end is a bit of a cop-out. That's but a tiny fly in a large, yummy glass of character study - about a woman for whom time could heal no wounds.


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