REVIEW – Master Class – Hillbarn Theatre

Interestingly enough this past week’s entertainment was full of recurring Opera motifs. Both The Last Romance at San Jose Rep and Maser Class at Hillbarn have explored very different sides of Opera and used the music and the structure of Opera cleverly. Though reviewed separately based on their individual merits (my review The Last Romance can be seen here) I find this unintentional double feature to be a conversation in and of itself. But, one for another time.

One might expect that a play centered around the legendary opera diva Maria Callas to be dramatic and over the top. Maria even says in the beginning of Master Class something to the effect of “I don’t know what they have told you, I do not know what you expect” but while her personality may lend itself to melodrama, this play is fascinatingly understated and down to earth, extremely compelling and refreshingly real.

Even if you’re familiar with Maria Callas, if you’ve seen photos, know her history, heard her sing, if you have an idea of what she should be, it does not matter. It does not matter because this interpretation is so committed and commanding it dismisses any doubt you may have if the actress on stage is indeed an actress. Who is this “actress?” There is no actress.  This is Maria Callas. And in a way the strength of her performance abruptly snuffs out any room for judgment. Callas is who she is, and she IS on that stage. And you will listen to every word. From her entrance she commands respect. You could tell by the immediate posture changes that rippled throughout the theatre as we found ourselves eager to please and impossible not to respond to our teacher’s mere presence. The rapport Callas has with the audience is, simply put, astounding.

This is a piece that is structured like an opera and that means there’s very little room for error of any kind for any of the characters. With singing, live piano playing, translations, tempo and musical underscoring that are critical to the dialogue, and the need for Callas to seemingly orchestrate everything, it’s quite a feat. All this is accomplished so naturally, it’s only afterwards that you realize all the work that went into making it look so spontaneous.

Lines are the obvious challenge, the line load is heavy and that’s an understatement. Yet, it all seems so unrehearsed, so marvelously off the cuff and so very in the moment. Then there’s the accent that must remain constant, the Italian and French pronunciation that must be precise and fluid, and blocking, emotion, plus nuanced expression and gestures, all while making sure the audience is engaged and the stage is extended to include them.

The supporting cast is wonderful to listen to and in most cases I could believe they were students looking to glean some insight from the master herself. If I had one criticism is would be the flashback scenes. Without giving anything away, I know WHY they were there (to show how Maria is connected to the parts she played, how she used emotion from her experiences to bring those characters to life in ways many others could not) but I thought they detracted a bit from the amazing reality of what had been created in the space. In my opinion monologues are really tough, they can be silly to be honest, and if you are doubly challenged with recreating a scene, speaking for two people not one, it can really interrupt the established momentum. Still playwrights aren’t film makers and if you want to get into the subtext, if you want to show what’s going on with a character to inform and give further depth to a scene, you go the monologue or flashback route. A necessary evil perhaps that did a disservice to this play, brief as it may have been.

There are a lot of wonderful moments relating to creating art at the core of this play and the fundamental process of Opera can be applied to any art form. I maintain that art is everywhere and it can “just happen” but more often than not there is a lot of hard work that goes into creating it and the best most transforming art does require some soul bearing. Being of this mindset, perhaps it explains the line that gave me the biggest smile “never give your art away for free.” I paraphrase, but essentially, as an artist you give your audience everything, you are vulnerable down to your bones at times, you are exposed, and the least you deserve for such honesty and risk is compensation. Makes you proud to be a patron of the arts (especially in tough times) and also makes me realize that in a way, the tough times are when the arts helps the most.

Overall, Hillbarn does an excellent job with the production that speaks to artists in particular but is a wonderful insight into the world of the artist for those that do not regularly create. An enjoyable piece that produces 4 1/2 out of 5 bright jewels in the tiara. Master Class plays through November 6th at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City.

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