The soul of a diva

Reno Little Theater presents a heart-wrenching portrait of opera star Maria Callas

Gena Roberts and Richard Szitar take opera diva Maria Callas’ abuse in Reno Little Theater’s <i>Master Class</i>.

Gena Roberts and Richard Szitar take opera diva Maria Callas’ abuse in Reno Little Theater’s Master Class.

Rated 4.0

Is it truth? Is it fiction? Does it matter?

These are the questions I’m faced with after seeing Reno Little Theater’s production of Master Class, a drama based on the life of the late, legendary soprano Maria Callas. In the play, Callas is a diva past her prime teaching a master class to aspiring opera students at Juilliard, something she actually did in the early 1970s. Opera lovers and theater critics have chided playwright Terrance McNally for overly fictionalizing Callas’ character, playing up her shrewish qualities and pandering to cheap laughs.

I say critics be damned.

McNally’s portrait of Callas may be less than flattering, but it’s multi-faceted and emotionally riveting. In Master Class, Callas is portrayed as an exceptionally artistic woman who is also exceptionally unlikable. Through the course of the play, you’ll discover the heartbreaks and hardships she endured en route to becoming such an overbearing, rude, condescending person. You may still leave the performance not liking her, but most likely, you’ll respect her fierce determination and her artistic integrity. Besides, Callas doesn’t give a damn if you like her anyway.

Karen Chandler plays the title role; besides her acting prowess, Chandler has the advantage of having taught acting at the high school and college level for 15 years. While I doubt, as the program notes state, that Chandler “is used to ripping students apart, leaving them a quivering mass of gelatinous goo,” I’m sure her experience as a teacher of the arts enhanced her performance.

Chandler’s Callas is like a cat toying with its prey. One minute she’ll rip into a student with fervor; the next, she’s offering compliments and tissues to the weeping victim. I’m not familiar with Greek accents, so I don’t know if Chandler’s sounded authentic, but everything else about her performance felt real. I especially enjoyed the flashback scenes, in which Chandler displays a vulnerability and a depth of anguish that is riveting.

Master Class might as well be a one-woman show, and this is no slight to the supporting cast. It’s just written in such a way that the minor characters are just that—minor. They function merely as catalysts for Callas’ moments of vulnerability or as springboards for her next tirade.

The three cast as students—Donnell Wolf, Gena Roberts and Matthew Mahan—deserve special mention for their operatic singing, especially the two women. But though Roberts infuses a surge of life into her minor character, Mahan’s stubborn joviality feels forced, and Wolf has too small a repertoire of facial expressions.

Paul Dancer and Richard Szitar, as the stagehand and the pianist, respectively, simply provide Chandler’s Callas more opportunities to shine; they have hardly any lines and little chance for real creativity in acting. Szitar’s piano accompaniment is gorgeously performed, however, if a notch too loud during some crucial scenes. I also had trouble hearing Chandler’s lines when recorded music was played, and I was sitting third row center.

I won’t stress the technical criticisms too much, though, because director Tony DeGeiso had to scramble to find a new venue for his production just two days before opening night after a booking at the Riverfront Theater fell through. Though I would have preferred the comfy chairs at the Riverfront, seeing Master Class in a high school auditorium just lends an extra bit of authenticity to an already complex dilemma between truth and fiction.