WATERTOWN — It’s always tricky to build a play about a real person — particularly when that person is one of the most celebrated opera singers of the 20th century. Terrence McNally’s Tony Award winner, “Master Class,” from 1995, isn’t so much about Maria Callas as it is about divahood, about the idea that being a star requires attitude as much as talent and hard work. In performance, it’s almost entirely dependent on the actress playing Callas. In the New Repertory Theatre production that’s just opened at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Amelia Broome may not channel Callas, but she masters the role.
The setup is simple: It’s the early 1970s, and Callas, nearly 50, her career over, is giving a master class in an unnamed theater. (McNally took as his starting point the classes she gave at the Juilliard School in 1971-72.) In the course of the play, which at New Rep runs 2½ hours, with one 20-minute intermission, she manages to listen to two sopranos and a tenor. “I bark, I bark quite a bit actually, but I don’t bite,” she tells the audience.
Maybe she should bite. The students are caricatures. Sophie doesn’t know the meaning of the words in her aria from Bellini’s “La sonnambula,” and she hasn’t looked at the composer’s directions in the score. Sharon runs offstage and throws up when Callas criticizes her entrance as Lady Macbeth, then comes back and says, “I’m not an actress, I’m just a singer.”
Of course, McNally’s Callas is herself a caricature. He captures the style of her Juilliard classes, but not the substance; this “Master Class” has little to say about vocal technique. And his Callas is far less interested in her students (she keeps forgetting their names), or in the music she gave her life to, than she is in herself. At the end of the first act, during Sophie’s aria, and again in the second, during Sharon’s, Callas falls into a reverie in which she reminisces on her life and career, her debut at La Scala, her transformation from “fat, ugly canary” to “another Audrey Hepburn,” her marriage to an Italian industrialist twice her age, her affair with Aristotle Onassis, and the child he persuaded her to abort. It’s a wistful meditation on the demands of life versus art. As biography, however, it’s pure melodrama.
Broome makes it a bit more than that. Stalking the stage in a black sweater and pants and the Hermès scarf McNally prescribes, she radiates authority. When she points her chin and lectures the audience, she can seem arch and artificial. But when she gets down on her knees to show Sophie how to sing Amina’s sleepwalking aria, she loses herself in the music. And when she tells slouching tenor Tony, “Look at me, I’m drinking water, and I have presence,” she does.
As the students, Erica Spyres, Lindsay Conrad, and Darren T. Anderson sing beautifully; they also respond to Broome’s body language. I do wish the sopranos didn’t seem, under Antonio Ocampo-Guzman’s direction, quite so improbably feckless: Spyres’s Sophie smirks and simpers; Conrad’s Sharon sports a fatuous smile. As the stagehand, moreover, Michael Caminiti is improbably sulky. But Brendon Shapiro, buttoning his jacket every time he stands up, hits the right note as respectful, eager-to-please accompanist Manny Weinstock. And the myriad of imaginative touches, like the deprecatory wave of the hand Manny gives when Callas says, “I don’t like many things German,” make a music all their own.