Leonard Bernstein referred to legendary soprano Maria Callas as “The Bible of opera.” Opera News still called her a “diva” and “La Divina” three decades after her death.
And Terrence McNally received his fourth Tony Award for “Master Class,” a brilliant work about the last tortuous phase of Callas’s life.
Lucky for Long Beach theater-lovers, a flawless production of “Master Class” just opened at International City Theatre. Luckier still, Gigi Bermingham has been cast as the lead. From her first step on stage, Bermingham doesn’t just portray Callas; she embodies every fiber of her being.
McNally places this illustrious woman at the end of her career. For 10 years, she was the world’s most celebrated opera star; then she lost her voice, was kicked out of La Scalla, and the love of her life (Aristotle Onassis) abandoned her.
The year is 1971. The place is Juilliard, where La Diva has been reduced to conducting master classes. We obediently listen as she speaks directly to us and demands discipline.
We sit captivated as Callas scolds us, while simultaneously unleashing wicked humor and non-stop criticism on three advanced students who have dreams of becoming opera stars.
Under Todd Nielsen’s direction, everything is realistic.
Sometimes Callas/Bermingham talks directly to the audience in a condescending manner; sometimes familiar music sweeps her away; sometimes pain and anger break through.
Everything takes place on JR Bruce’s stark, minimal set under Jeremy Pivnick’s dramatic lighting. With James Lent at the piano as the class accompanist, we hear strains of many famous arias along with Callas’s extensive knowledge of them.
Sophie De Palma (Danielle Skalsky) is the first soprano to audition. True to form, Callas/Birmingham starts criticizing Sophie before she finishes her first note. (She finds fault with everything Sophie does, including her weakness and crying.)
“Don’t just sing it, feel it! The world is so brutal, you must be strong. Tears will get you nowhere.” With that, Callas takes over the aria, recalling her brilliant performance at La Scalla and her painful breakup with Onassis.
The audition of Sharon, the second soprano, is beautifully performed by Jennifer Shelton. Although she’s been in many ICT productions, who knew Shelton could sing opera? But wow, does she ever!
After being dissed for her gown, Sharon runs offstage in embarrassment. To the surprise of Callas/Birmingham, she returns much later with grit and determination. In her absence, however, a handsome tenor named Tony (Tyler Milliron) appears, grinning with confidence. After raking him over the coals, Callas admits he has a nice voice.
When Sharon reappears unexpectedly, she and Callas get down to serious business. For the rest of Act II, they go back and forth from Sharon’s beautiful delivery to Callas’s painful memories.
“You need discipline, determination, technique, and ‘mut’ (a German word for courage),” she tells Sharon. “Now go work on something appropriate to your limitations.”
With that, Sharon finds her “mut” and lashes out before storming off stage. “You want me to sing like you do and lose my voice?!”
Callas/Birmingham is visibly hurt and upset; maybe teaching was a mistake. “The world must be safe for art,” she concludes, “just sing properly and honestly.” Six years later, at age 53, Callas was dead.
“Master Class” is sheer dynamite. It continues at the Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd. through April 14. For tickets, call 436-4610.