Callas comes alive in New Rep’s ‘Master Class’

Brendan Shapiro as Manny, Lindsay Conrad as Sharon and Amelia Broome as Maria Callas in the New Repertory Theatre's "Master Class." Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures.

Brendan Shapiro as Manny, Lindsay Conrad as Sharon and Amelia Broome as Maria Callas in the New Repertory Theatre’s “Master Class.” Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures.

WATERTOWN — The late opera soprano Maria Callas was almost a mythical figure.

She was as famous for her affairs as her stormy but short career. The soprano known as “La Divina,” born in the U.S. but raised in Greece, commanded stages all around the world with her unique singing style and a matchless stage presence

Her star burned brightly but her career was essentially over at the age of 40. From October 1971 to March 1972, Callas gave a series of master classes at the Juilliard School in New York. It was these classes — five or six of which were attended by playwright Terrence McNally — which inspired him to write “Master Class,” now being presented through April 21 by the New Repertory Theatre in the Mosesian Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.

Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, aided by a strong cast, skillfully engages us in the Callas story. Eventually, McNally touches on everything you know or think you know about her: her transformation from an overweight woman to a svelte, glamorous one; her rivalry with Renata Tebaldi; going without food during World War II to keep her studies going; the myopia that she believed a gift as she was unable to see the conductor and thus forced to know every note in the score.

There is also the supreme ego of the diva, jealously, an inability to relate to those less talented , her mother’s alleged preference for her slimmer, more attractive sister — it is all here in some form and fashion, all of which what made her a such a great artist and also what made her personal life and relationships so stormy.

McNally himself appreciated the difficulty of teaching, and how great artists often failed as teachers, much like great ballplayers or athletes flunking out as managers or coaches.

As “Master Class” opens, we the audience have been invited to be part of one of Callas’ master classes, and Amelia Broome as Callas enters and warms us from the beginning: “No applause.”

There is no fourth wall, Broome as Callas engages in interactive byplay with audience members and banters with us over whether we have “the look” that you need to succeed on stage She seeks approval or disapproval from for something she has said, or after she brings us into her confidence with a story or anecdote about a rival..

As Callas, Broome artfully captures the many sides of the character and the seeming contradictions of her personality. As portrayed here, she is in her late 40’s —

still glamorous, with Stacey Stephens’ form-fitting, sleek black suit aiding the cause — still passionate about her craft, and with a sense of humor that is sometimes ribald or profane.

Her legendary insecurities and her frustration at her state in life boil over in her relationships with the students and the comments she makes, which often go over the line to be cruel and sadistic.

She forgets the names of students and the accompanist Manny (Brendon Shapiro) moments after he has reintroduced himself, and tosses endless requests at the beleaguered stagehand (Michael Caminiti).

She repeatedly stops a young student named Sophie DePalma (Erica Spyres) before she has even opened her mouth to sing.

Later, she mocks the modest resume of an amiable tenor named Tony (Darren T. Anderson) — “We all have to start somewhere,” even while she admires both his voice and his recitation of a piece.

A student named Sharon (Lindsay Conrad) is brought to tears and flee the stage after Callas acidly note of her gown. “Are you going somewhere after this this?” she drily asks, later adding she is actually dressed for “some Cinderella’s ball.”

When the student returns later to perform a difficult piece brilliantly, Callas can’t help adding a backhanded slap at her exit, advising her next time to perform “ a piece more suited to your talents.”

That triggers a scathing rebuttal from the student at Callas as the audience gasps, and later, sadness when Callas tacitly admits “maybe this whole teaching business was a mistake.”

There are heartfelt moments when Callas engages us in a long monologue near the end with her conviction that art trumps all, and that any means to the end is legitimate if the end result is great art.

She pleads with us to continue our support opera as well as all of the arts.

“I am certain that what we do matters,” she says.

The New Repertory Theatre production of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” through April 21 at the Charles Mosesian Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. Directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman.