‘Master Class,’ like fact-based flicks, revises history

Maria Callas (Ilona Dulaski, center) gives a lesson to Sharon Graham (Sara Pardo) with help from her Accompanist (Quinton Jones) in Master Class (photo by Ben Sostrom)
Maria Callas (Ilona Dulaski, center) gives a lesson to Sharon Graham (Sara Pardo) with help from her Accompanist (Quinton Jones) in Master Class (photo by Ben Sostrom)

By Richard Ades

Several recent movies have been suspected of bending historical reality to suit their dramatic needs.

Was LBJ really as hostile to civil rights as he’s portrayed in Selma? Was World War II code breaker Alan Turing as socially inept as he seems in The Imitation Game? And what about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle? Was he depicted with warts-and-all accuracy in American Sniper?

The answer to such questions is nearly always “no.” For better or worse, scriptwriters often reshape real-life personalities and events for the sake of a good storyline.

Playwrights are no different. It’s been suggested, for example, that the title king in Shakespeare’s Richard III wasn’t nearly as villainous in real life. History has its place, but the plot must be served.

Which brings me to Terrence McNally’s Master Class, now being revived by CATCO. Based on an actual series of workshops Maria Callas led at Julliard in 1971-72, it portrays the former opera star as so wrapped up in her ego and her painful past that she fails to realize the effect her brutal critiques are having on her vulnerable students.

When I first saw a touring production starring Faye Dunaway in 1997, I wondered why McNally would portray a singer he’d long admired in such an unflattering light. After reading a 2011 piece by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, I wondered even more. Transcripts of the actual Julliard classes, according to Tommasini, prove the real-life Callas was demanding but far more supportive and sensitive than McNally’s fictional version.

The only explanation for the makeover is that McNally felt Callas would be a better dramatic character if she were preoccupied by memories of her former stardom and failed relationships, especially with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. To me, though, the play’s brief flashbacks to her glory days are less satisfying than her best moments in the “present.”

These mainly involve two students who show up in the second act and manage to pull valuable advice from Callas and incorporate it into their renditions of dramatic arias. In director Joe Bishara’s CATCO production, Daniel A. Lopez is personable as tenor Tony Candolino, while Sara Pardo delivers the night’s most glorious operatic performance as soprano Sharon Graham.

Act 1, which is dominated by Callas’s diva-like introductory remarks and a lengthy teaching session with soprano Sophie DePalma, is less compelling. Ilona Dulaski is haughtily cranky as Callas, but she’s isn’t quite regal enough to carry off the diva-hood routine, while Alexandra Kassouf’s Sophie is an unconvincing caricature of meekness when she isn’t displaying her lovely singing voice.

It should be noted that those comments are based on Thursday night’s preview performance, when Act 1 was hampered by minor stumbles and an overall lack of energy. It’s very possible that things will improve in subsequent performances.

Serving as an effective sounding board for Callas when he’s not tinkling away on a grand piano is Quinton Jones as the Accompanist, while Andrew Protopapas makes a few brief appearances as the surly Stagehand.

The serviceable wood-paneled scenery is designed by Edith Wadkins. Marcia Hain designed the costumes, including the fancy gown worn by Sharon and belittled by Callas.

Besides the fine singing by Pardo’s Sharon and the other students, Master Class is at its best when Callas shares her philosophy on what it takes to be an operatic artist. It’s hard work, she stresses, requiring much more than mere musical technique.

These moments, at least, seem faithful to the world-renowned singer who inspired McNally’s play.

CATCO will present Master Class through March 1 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $30 Thursday, $45 Friday-Saturday and $41 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.


Gangsters hold forth in second operatic update

One of the dancers from Danny’s nightclub in The Merry Widow (photo courtesy of CAPA)
One of the dancers from Danny’s nightclub in The Merry Widow (photo courtesy of CAPA)

By Richard Ades

Shadowbox Live and Opera Columbus had so much success with last year’s update of La Boheme that they decided to do it again. This time, the collaborators’ target is the 1905 operetta The Merry Widow.

As before, the lyrics have been translated to English while the action has been truncated and relocated to Columbus. Donathin Frye adapted the Franz Lehar/Victor Leon/Leo Stein work and directed the production, which again unfolds amid the tables of Shadowbox’s Backstage Bistro.

The verdict: It’s a pleasant way to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, especially if you combine it with one of the bistro’s tasty appetizers. Though not as involving or moving as La Boheme (not surprisingly, given the original’s comic nature), it features strong voices singing pretty solos and duets. Like the updated La Boheme, it amounts to a good introduction to opera for the uninitiated.

Whether opera buffs like it probably depends on their tolerance for deviations from the source material. And Frye does do a lot of deviating.

In place of the original work’s European nobles, Frye fills his tale with Columbus mobsters who are terrified of upsetting their Chicago-based boss, Don Mondo. The problem is that Hanna (Kristen Kurivial) has inherited $20 million from her late husband, and the unseen Mondo wants to ensure that she remarries someone who will keep the money in the family.

Mondo’s preferred husband-to-be is his nephew, Danny (Daniel Scofield), owner of a nightclub of slightly ill repute. Unfortunately, Danny and Hanna have a troubled history that has left them with a love-hate relationship.

Now, you, I and the bedpost know Danny and Hanna will eventually transcend the “hate” part, but in the meantime local crime boss Don Zeta (David Weaver) is worried Hanna will end up with someone who’s not only unrelated but a cop to boot: Detective Cameron (Robert Bux). Little does he know that Cameron is actually in love with Zeta’s own semi-faithful wife, Valerie (Katherine Petersen).

Frye plays up the adaptation’s mobster element with stereotypical jokes and characters that would become tiresome if the tale weren’t so breezy and good-natured. Besides, the point of all this is to hear good music, and on that score, the show delivers.

Performing under Jason Hiester’s musical direction and to pianist James R. Jenkins’s sprightly accompaniment, the cast raises voices that range from good to great. Scofield’s baritone is especially aria-worthy, but other leading players hold their own.

Petersen displays fine pipes as the teasing Valerie, and her duets with her panting admirer, Bux’s Cameron, are both tuneful and sexy. Kurivial’s solos as Hanna benefit from her own sweet voice, though it’s a little odd that she suddenly develops an Appalachian-like accent when she’s not singing.

As for Frye’s lyrics, they’re fun, if occasionally silly. “You may think that it’s a joke,” Valerie sings to the seductive Cameron, “but it will end with guns and smoke.” And that sounds like Shakespeare compared to “Tippy dippy,” a line from a later song performed by the raunchy dancers who headline Danny’s club.

Then again, if you were worried about rampant silliness, you probably wouldn’t be attending this updated, gangster-filled operetta. In fact, you probably wouldn’t be attracted to opera in the first place.

Opera on the Edge (a collaboration Shadowbox Life and Opera Columbus) will present The Merry Widow through Nov. 17 and Jan. 11 through Feb. 2 at the Backstage Bistro, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 4 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. Tickets are free (selected seats are $10); reservations are recommended. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.