Master Class

Master Class
a kate west review
by Terrence McNally, directed by Simon Levy
Fountain Theatre production at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 Sepulveda, L.A. 90025
Extended through July 25, 2004! Tix (323) 663-1525;

Following in the footsteps of a career-defining role such as Maria Class in “Master Class” is no easy task. Zoe Caldwell is well-known for brilliantly defining that part on Broadway and Faye Dunaway attempted the same in a recent Los Angeles production. Now the Fountain Theatre’s new production of “Master Class” provides the answer to the question, ‘can an actress make the role her own and still capture the essence of Callas?’ The answer is a resounding YES. Karen Kondazian’s recent interpretation is magnificent. She artfully plays the maestra, exposing Callas’ raw complexities, simultaneously making her sympathetic and terrifying.

The play begins with the house lights up and Callas (Kondazian) striding in after her accompanist (Bill Newlin). She acknowledges the audience as her “students” in one of her famous 1970’s master classes at Julliard in New York. She lectures us on how to behave and playfully picks out members of the audience, completing the illusion that she is indeed Callas, “la divina” resurrected. Thus we dare not make a sound, lest we anger the great one. Her students (“victims,” she calls them) come in one by one, never good enough and woefully unprepared for her attack. This particular evening the first Soprano, Sophie, is shyly portrayed by the alternate, Stephanie Reese. Barely getting out the first note, Callas rips into the poor girl, ruthlessly bullying her into feeling some real emotion. After these brutal onslaughts, Sophie’s final tearful attempt is significantly better than her first and one begins to see why Callas was considered possibly the greatest vocal artist of her century (1923-1977).

Another fascinating aspect of the production is that Callas is occasionally lost in reverie and the student fades out while we hear the actual Callas recordings of the same roles. During these flashbacks, we glimpse the torture and agony of being Callas, from her insecurity and paranoia, thinking everyone was talking behind her back and ridiculing her looks, to her tumultuous relationship with millionaire Aristotle Onassis. She was a real, vibrant, passionate, jealous and endlessly fascinating human being. Kondazian effortlessly jumps between the younger and older Callas, creating a fully realized, dimensional and superb characterization and homage.

The next two students challenge her authority. Clifton Hall saunters in as the Tenor, determined to get by on his good looks alone (and indeed Hall is pretty dreamy). Callas gives him a few notes and then sends him on his way. The final student, Alternate Sierra Rein, the second Soprano, imperious and proud, is the ultimate challenger, declaring her dislike for Callas and throwing all Callas’ doubts in her face. Absurdly over-dressed in a ball gown (credit Costumer Designer Naila Aladdin-Sanders), she is hurt by Callas’ relentless digs and lashes out. At this point, we feel deeply for Callas as she slips into another reverie, exposing the ultimate pain of her life and her current loneliness. Fighting with everyone around her, from her surly stagehand (Scott Tuomey) to her three students, Callas comes across as feisty and full of pride herself, yet missing something vital at the end. It is not easy being great.

Multimedia Designer Mark Rosenthal and Sound Designer John Zalewski support the reminisces with slide projections of the real Callas, Director Simon Levy sensitively puts Kondazian through her paces and Set Designer Desma Murphy creates a precise atmosphere with a bare stage, a piano and a table and chair for Callas just as it must have been during the actual master classes. All three students are fine singers as well, giving the audience the added bonus of listening to good musical performances (selections were from Bellini, Puccini and Verdi). The overall production is an intriguing depiction of Cecilia Sofia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos, the New York born Greek diva who so tragically lost her voice early on. Playwright Terrence McNally should be honored to have his well-known play so lovingly depicted. An excellent production, one comes away with the burning desire to read a biography on Callas and of course to attend an opera as soon as possible.

The Very Best Of Maria Callas

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