Theatre review: Master Class, Ensemble Theatre

Terrence McNally’s play about opera legend Maria Callas gives us a masterclass in stagecraft.
A woman with her hair in a bun is standing spotlit in centre of stage. She is wearing silver blouse and black pants and carrying a bouquet of roses. Petals are strewn below her. A band can be seen playing around her, in semi darkness.

Once in a while – very rarely indeed – a theatre production is so accomplished, so well executed, that there is little for a reviewer to do but sing its praises.

Ensemble Theatre’s Master Class is one such production.

Of course, it helps that director Liesel Badorrek and the cast and crew are already working with theatrical gold. 

Terrence McNally’s 1995 play, a fictional account of a series of masterclasses given by Maria Callas in New York City in the early 1970s, has a fascinating premise and razor-sharp script. It won the 1996 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and the 1996 Tony Award for Best Play.

But what dazzles is the way Badorrek’s Master Class mines and refines that gold.

Australia has seen several high-profile adaptations of Master Class since it first reached our shores in 1997. Robyn Nevin, Amanda Muggleton and Maria Mercedes have all played the lead role; all three turned in acclaimed performances (particularly Muggleton, whose characterisation won her the 2002 Helpmann Award for Best Actress).

It is hard to imagine a performer equalling or exceeding their portrayals of “La Divina” but if anyone can, it’s Lucia Mastrantone. 

Mastrantone is simply brilliant as Maria Callas. She runs the gamut of emotions in her performance, putting several opera students (played by Elisa Colla, Bridget Patterson and Matthew Reardon) through their paces. 

In her interactions with the students, Mastrantone’s Callas is alternately kind, cruel, encouraging and acerbic. She is larger than life – and supremely entertaining. 

But this isn’t just some big diva performance, with Mastrantone emoting her head off. This is a sensitive, nuanced portrayal of Callas, a brittle woman near the end of her life (although she didn’t know it) whose voice is wrecked, her career essentially over.   

Particularly poignant are Callas’ asides while teaching, which are interspersed throughout the play and see her reflect on pivotal moments in her life: the triumphs, the tragedies, her doomed relationship with Aristotle Onassis. 

While Master Class hinges on Mastrantone, she’s just one of this show’s formidable talents on and off stage. Supporting actors and opera singers Colla (a soprano), Patterson (soprano) and Reardon (tenor) excel as both actors and singers. (Not that we hear much of their singing, with Callas constantly interrupting her students.) 

Colla, especially, is a standout as Sharon Graham, a Midwestern girl bullied off stage by Callas – before ultimately returning and standing up to the Greek-American diva.

The technical aspects of this play also impress. 

Lighting designer Kelsey Lee contributes enormously to the story arc; her lighting arrangements presage and strengthen various changes in mood and pace, enhancing the narrative throughout. 

Set and costume designer Isabel Hudson does a fine job at both. The set is simple yet effective, the costumes expertly crafted and appropriate. 

Music is, of course, vital to this play. Here, too, there is much to commend. Marie Alfonsine and Damian de Boos-Smith deserve kudos for their efforts in musical direction, composition and sound design.

The pair also play instruments (the piano and cello, respectively) and both have well-received acting roles: Alfonsine is Callas’ pianist in the classes, de Boos-Smith has a small but amusing role as a stagehand.

Read: Exhibition review: Michelle Hamer: I’m a Believer, Linden New Art

It’s important to note that one doesn’t need to be a fan of Callas or even of opera to enjoy this show. Master Class is not an opera or a musical – anyone expecting such will come away disappointed. Rather, this play is a masterclass in dramatic brilliance. 

And while it’s tremendously enjoyable and very funny at times, there are serious messages within about the importance of art and the power of being true to oneself, even at high cost. 

Any theatre lover will be richly rewarded by the Ensemble Theatre’s Master Class.

Master Class by Terrence McNally
Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli NSW
Director: Liesel Badorrek
Assistant Director: Miranda Middleton
Musical Director, Composer, Sound Designer and Cast: Maria Alfonsine
Composer, Sound Designer and Cast: Damian de Boos-Smith
Set and Costume Designer: Isabel Hudson
Lighting Designer: Kelsey Lee
Dialect Coach: Linda Nicholls-Gidley
Operatic Voice Coach: Donna Balson

Theatre Stage Manager: Jen Jackson
Rehearsal Stage Manager: Emily Phillips
Costume Supervisor: Renata Beslik
Cast: Elisa Colla, Lucia Mastrantone, Bridget Patterson, Matthew Reardon

Tickets: $25-$88

Master Class will be performed at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, Sydney until 20 July 2024.

Peter Hackney is an Australian-Montenegrin writer and editor who lives on Dharug and Gundungurra land in Western Sydney - home to one of Australia’s most diverse and dynamic arts scenes. He has a penchant for Australian theatre but is a lover of the arts in all its forms. A keen ‘Indonesianist’, Peter is a frequent traveller to our northern neighbour and an advanced student of Bahasa Indonesia. Muck Rack: