Master Class

Callas, once again with feelings
By Earl D.C. Bracamonte


"In art, there is always an entrance first, just as there is always an
exit after. Art is about all these transitions. The rest is all ka-ka-pee- pee-doo-doo!"
Maria Callas (1923-77)


The Philippine Opera Company (POC) is re-staging the Tony Award-winning play Master Class, about the legendary opera diva Maria Callas, to rave reviews.
The play takes the form of one of opera diva Maria Callas’s famous master classes in voice in 1971 at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, six years before her untimely demise.
The play is a glamorous, commanding, larger-than-life, caustic, and surprisingly drop-dead funny pedagogue of a voice master class. “Callas is discipline, technique and mut, the German word for courage,” said the revered actress who immortalized the line ‘You’re nothing but a second-rate trying hard copycat!’
Cherie Gil, one of Philippine cinema’s respected thespians, reprises the role with aplomb. The surging adrenaline she had on her first foray into the titular character has now given way to a more relaxed and internalized portrayal. It is as if Callas were in her very skin. At times you’ll see the fervor burning in her eyes.
Other members of the cast render able support especially in the essaying of the arias. Florence Aguilar, almost like a nightingale, mouths the lines of Amina from La Somnambula in the aria Ah non credea mirarti. While John Gaerlan sings Recondita armonia from Tosca with bravura and candor.
Asked what made her agree to play a very difficult and controversial role the first time, she said, “I read the script over and over and constantly asked myself what I got myself into. Maria Callas is larger-than-life and always known to be the epitome of discipline, having an intense passion about love for her art. I was compelled to get to know her though I knew it would be a very difficult shoe to fill. Perhaps, I personally was looking into seeing my own art through her eyes and finding a fresh start to loving my craft all over again.”
“I immersed myself into Callas for four months during the first run in preparation for the role. Looking back now, I think fate and destiny led me to this opportunity. Art is about collaboration and domination as it continues to bring unto audiences artistic and memorable productions as this one,” she added.
In one of her repartees, Callas (Gil) makes snide comments about other opera singers, and alternately dismayed and impressed or even demanded passion and fervor from three student vocalists – Sophie de Palma (Florence Aguilar), Anthony Candolino (Juan Alberto Gaerlan, with alternate Al Gatmaitan) and Sharon Graham (Ana Feleo, with alternate Kay Balajadia-Liggayu) who parade before her.
While Gil makes for a superb Callas, it was equally surprising to watch Ana Feleo adding a new dimension to the role of Sharon Graham. In their shared scene, it was a delight to see both actresses playing their respective roles to the hilt. ‘Twas like watching Meryl Streep and Viola Adams in Doubt. Feleo does hold her own with flying colors alongside the formidable Cherie.
“It is the most difficult job I had to do. I was going through a certain crisis in my personal life that it was the perfect timing doing it the first time. ‘Twas part of a transition and no words can explain it. I hope to bring fresh insights into Callas and her love for life this time around. If I did not play as kontrabida on film, I don´t think I would be able to play Callas. The universe brings to you what you must receive,” said Cherie, adding that this work marks her 37th year in show-business.
Although Master Class does delve into the triumphs and tragedies of Callas’s life, its primary focus is the art of dramatic singing. As McNally’s fictional version of the diva teaching her class, she explains to her students (two sopranos and a tenor) just what it takes to invest the music with real feeling; revealing as she does how demanding the profession of opera singing is. She also reveals her own contradictory personality; proud and egotistical yet also vulnerable and self-pitying.
In spite of all the flaws of its main character, however, Maria Callas, written by a man who has been a fan since he was a teenager in high school, is a tribute to the dedication of a great singer and actress to her chosen art.
“It was an intelligent choice to re-stage the material as it is vital on all levels. This is not just about the life of an amazing woman who revolutionized the theater world but more about passion and love for life as well as things we understand; which makes it even more universal. This is a composite of the people who took her class. We hope that audiences will be moved. After all, a life driven by passion is never easy,” declared director Michael Williams.
The action sometimes shifts when, she retreats into recollections about the glories of her own life and career. Included in her musings are her younger years as an ugly duckling, her fierce hatred of her so-called rivals, the unforgiving press that savaged her early performances, her triumphs at La Scala, and her tempestuous affair with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
Although the play touches on many of the main events of Callas’s life, it is not in essence a biographical portrait. Rather, it is an exploration of the nature of artistic creation, as applied to opera. Callas makes clear that art is serious business that cannot be done by half measures; that it demands total commitment on the part of the disciple. Being an opera singer can never be an easy career as the singer must give everything to the demands of the craft. This means intense subjugation over a lifetime.
Maria Callas was the greatest dramatic soprano of her generation and was also a very controversial figure. Her restless personality often led her into disputes with opera managements and feuds with rival singers. However, she was adored by fans and was the subject of constant media attention, including gossip about her jet-set life with the wealthy shipowner Ari Onassis, who would leave her for Jackie Kennedy.
Master Class all culminates into a soliloquy about sacrifice taken in the name of art. “We gave up a lot of ourselves totally for love and along the way ruined our voices,” citing similarities she shares with the esteemed diva she’s portraying. After Master Class, Cherie is setting her sights on playing Webber s fallen heroine Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard.
Deftly directed by ace director Michael Williams, Master Class will run at the Carlos P. Romulo Theater, RCBC Plaza with ten performances (that started July 29) until August 15; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM and Sundays at 3:30PM. For more information, simply call the POC office through tel. nos. 892-8786 and 881-7168 or TicketWorld at 891-9999. You may also visit their Web site www.philippineoperacompany.com

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