Crist shines in 2nd Story’s Master Class

All the right notes
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  August 31, 2011

DEMON AND DIVA Colonna and Crist.

Self-centeredness, tunnel vision, career obsession — these are not traits that endear us to a person. Yet without them, as Terrence McNally's absorbing Master Class makes clear, Maria Callas would not have attained her ranking as a renowned opera diva.

At 2nd Story Theatre (through September 3), directed by Ed Shea, Gloria Crist transforms herself into Callas as convincingly as the star soprano inhabited her own roles — perhaps more so, since Crist possesses an uncanny physical likeness that previous actors in the role would envy, from Zoe Caldwell on Broadway to the current Tyne Daly.

We the audience are addressed as vocal students, soon thankful that we are not one of the three students who venture onstage for a critique. The instructor is every bit as hard on them as she has been on herself in the life that brought her here, past her prime, having lost her performance voice, yet still indomitable in spirit.

She says that she never missed a lesson or was even late to one. You must "subjugate yourself to music," she insists, an instruction understood with a chill up our spines when we later see how she subjugated herself to a satanically cruel (in this depiction) Aristotle Onassis (Bob Colonna).

Dripping costume jewelry, wearing leopard pumps, and carrying a zebra handbag, which accord with Callas's animal nature, Crist strides the stage with the feral nobility of a lioness perusing her prey. "I don't bite," she says to her first student/victim. "I bark, but I don't bite." We wonder.

But no blood is ever shed. The first soprano who steps out, Sophie DiPalma (Stephanie Morgan), may get her self-confidence wounded, but that is done through Callas's smiles and gentle demeanor. Sophie gets one note out, a briefly extended "Oh," before she is stopped and corrected. "I get so impatient with a singer who doesn't listen to the music," Callas chides her while addressing us. This is ironic, because she was chattering moments before through the aria prelude that the accompanist (Charles Elder) was playing.

"It's not a note we have to hear," she tells the student after her second attempt, "it's a stab of pain." Callas is harsh but helpful: "I'm only hearing consonants — she's singing in Sanskrit!"

Pain is a subject that Callas could have given a course on, never mind a class. She makes passing references to her barefoot childhood in Athens, when she knew serious hunger. (The play doesn't mention that Callas was really born and raised in Manhattan, not moving to Greece until she was 14.) Sofia Cecelia Kalos was the ugly duckling of the family, in overweight contrast to a beautiful older sister.

No wonder she became emotionally enslaved to a sadist and egomaniac, shipping magnate Onassis. Playwright McNally and Colonna portray him as all but hissing billows of venom. Callas left a husband much older than herself for this affair, a scandal to her prim and proper fans, abandoning her opera career to sing only for him — he hated opera and made her do bawdy ballads, according to this account. He eventually left her for Jacqueline Kennedy, not mentioned here because that would render implausible this exaggerated demonization.

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