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Master Class ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
May 9, 2017

(l-R) Ayana Reed as Sharon and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

(l-R) Ayana Reed as Sharon and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

Ilona Dulaski dons Maria Callas like a full-length mink coat in Terrence McNally’s Master Class now at MetroStage.  Dulaski morphs utterly into the famed and feisty opera diva in all her forms, from the tough broad she was to the tragic figure she became.  Aiming dead eye at the audience, as though we are fellow students of the opera, the prima donna doles out life lessons like lollipops.  So convincing is Dulaski’s delivery that when she demands a pencil be produced for a forgetful student, we begin searching our pockets.  “I always had a pencil.  I never had an orange,” she chides, explaining a youth of deprivation.  And again, insulting each female student for their unprofessional clothing choices, demanding they “have a look”.  “It’s important to have style and élan,” she insists.  And we, the audience, begin to do a mental check on what we wore to the theater.  It’s that visceral.  I kept flashing on Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard for reference and I’m still not sure why.

(l-R) Ayana Reed as Sharon and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

(l-R) Ayana Reed as Sharon and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

Nick Olcott, who also directs opera productions for Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the Washington National Opera, has cleverly cast talented, young local opera singers as Callas’s students – Emily Hanzel as Sophie, Ayana Reed (who we loved in MetroStage’s recent production of Blackberry Days) as Sharon, and Daniel Noone as Tony the tenor (Joshua Baumgardner fills in for Noone on May 18th and 19th).  Singing arias from Tosca and Verdi, the budding performers are a joy to hear, and as neophytes it makes for a credible rapport with Madama Callas as she puts them through their paces like a sergeant barking insults to a group of raw recruits.  “Non-actor” and piano accompanist, Joseph Walsh, better known for conducting opera, does a fine job as wary foil to Callas’s slights.

(l-R) Daniel Noone as Tony and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

(l-R) Daniel Noone as Tony and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

Rhe’a Roland dresses the set to resemble a large classroom at Julliard and Jingwei Dal’s costumes reflect the year 1971 when Callas conducted master classes at the renowned conservatory.  And to set the period further Projection Designer Gordon Nimmo-Smith uses a triptych of screens with photographs of Callas’s lover and abuser Aristotle Onassis who dumped her unceremoniously after a ten-year relationship to marry widow, Jacqueline Kennedy.  Additional footage of Callas’s first marriage to an elderly industrialist shares space with photos and classic recordings of her triumphant performances at La Scala and New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.  It is during these pentimentos that Dulaski, toggling between the voice of Onassis and her own, reenacts conversations from their thorny affair.

Dulaski’s ability to be both poignant and terrifying is riveting.  In a scene depicting Callas’s response to those who bring up her rivals she sizzles with sarcasm, “How can you have rivals when nobody else can do what you do?”McNally portrays the artist as the complex woman she was – driven to succeed through discipline, fear of failure and pluck while subservient to a man who claimed he owned her.  It seems a sort of willful paradox that she allowed men to control her and yet fought tooth and nail against their insults.  To Sharon she warns, “You will in time know how much suffering there is for a woman.”

Highly recommended.

Through June 11th at MetroStage 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

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