When you decide to produce "Master Class," the gushing Terrence McNally slice of the life of famed soprano Maria Callas, there are temptations that need to be fought off.
One of them is allowing the play to get out of hand, and that is the function of a masterful directing job by Jill Anna Ponasik, who is the artistic director of the Milwaukee Opera Theatre.
Angela Iannone reprised her role as the great opera singer when Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opened its 40th season with a production of the play Friday night at the Broadway Theatre Center. The show runs through Aug. 24.
The show is truly a one woman play, even though there are other characters scattered about. They are all mere foils for a part that demands towering strength and passion, which Iannone delivers in spades.
But it is also a very special job by Ponasik, who co-directed with James Zager of Carroll College.
Your normal opera has dozens of people running around a stage, all singing or dancing even, and an opera director is as much a traffic cop as an artistic muse. Not in this production.
Ponasik displayed a remarkable sense of tender grace in letting the story be told without interference from outside events. It paid off in a night of theater that climbed well beyond the limits of the play and rode on the shoulders of these two women who have met in some kind of special place for this special role.
The story is about Callas, near the end of her career, no longer singing but instead teaching a master class at Juilliard School. Three singers come to learn, but for Callas, each encounter is merely an excuse for her to journey back in time to when she was the toast of the world and the mistress of Aristotle Onassis, until being overthrown for a younger woman, Jackie Kennedy.
Iannone is imperious and very funny, most often at the expense of others. But she makes a constant case for art and reveals that both her life and her career were pitched battles. Battles she happily won.
"Performance is a struggle you have to win," she says. "The audience is the enemy. Art is about domination."
Callas is the character in this play who comes closest to being a real, fully developed person. The others, while ably played by able actors, seem to be almost caricatures you might expect in such a teeming situation as a master class with a diva at the helm.
Iannone is a marvel to behold on this stage. She moves with the grace of a dancer and has a face that is a window into a soul both bedeviled and bedazzled by her memories. She talks with kind of a dashing humor with the audience and with a stridently high standard with those around her, including the three students.
Memorable and impressive work was also done by Chris Guse, who designed the sound that featured Callas singing while Iannone listened and lightly mimed the lyrics in apparent rapture at the sound she created. Guse also designed the stunning projection of La Scala, the famed Italian opera house where Callas made her debut.
A play about a real person – a famous person – is fraught with difficult propositions. Do you create a character who resembles what most fans remember? Do you meld a wide variety of artists who make up a whole that you wish the famous person had been?
McNally faced all those questions when writing this play almost 20 years ago, and he came up with some easy answers that left holes in whom Maria Callas was.
But those holes are filled magically buy Iannone and Ponasik, who somehow figured out how to make Callas larger than life, as she was, but still tiny enough that we could all wrap our arms around her.
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