“Forget all about me,” Maria Callas tells us. “Ignore me. I’m invisible.”
You could no sooner ignore this performance than keep your eyes off the most gorgeous sunset you’ve ever seen.
Jacqueline Antaramian returns to her Fresno roots with a superb portrayal of Callas, the iconic opera singer, in the beautifully crafted StageWorks Fresno/Fresno Grand Opera production of “Master Class” at the Shaghoian Hall. I’m not usually the type of critic who actively exhorts people to get up off their seats and into a car headed to the theater, but this is a time for forceful imperatives: If you don’t act quickly, you’ll miss this remarkable performance. It plays just two more times: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
It’s no surprise Antaramian brings such craft and expertise to the role. After a long and distinguished career in professional regional theater — she started it all off with an acclaimed run in the Fresno State theater department — she made her way to New York. Among other roles on Broadway, she understudied Tyne Daly in the role of Callas in “Master Class.”
The Shaghoian Hall is a perfect place to stage this play by Terrence McNally, which is set in a concert hall arranged for one of Callas’ famed master classes for advanced students that she taught at the end of her career — long after her rapturous voice was shot. The set-up is simple: a piano on one side of the stage, a table and stool on the other. (The Shaghoian’s architectural beauty does the rest.)
It’s as if we in the audience are students watching the great master at work.
From the moment Antaramian briskly strides onto stage, she embodies Callas with a crackle of electric understanding that captures her character’s moody charisma. (Entrances are always important, she admonishes the audience.) Veering from pensive to autocratic, from flippant (“How can you have rivals when no one else can do what you can do?” she smirks) to the nearly theological (“I do believe we are in a holy place,” she says, referring to the theater), it’s as if she’s humming along on a current that’s somehow more supercharged than the rest of us.
The structure of the play is relatively simple: Callas welcomes three students to the stage. The tentative Sophie DePalma (adeptly played by Taylor Abels as bland and mousy), is overwhelmed by her teacher’s towering presence, but even she shows the tentative stirrings of a fighting spirit. Tony Cadolino (a wonderful Brian Cali, who, like Antaramian, understudied his role in the Broadway Tyne Daly production), shows progressively more backbone, And, finally, Sharon Graham (a radiant Alicia O’Neill), who at first flees the stage to throw up in the bathroom but then returns to slowly, surely, assert herself in the presence of the master.
Two other cast members complete the picture: Dan Carrion as a hapless stagehand, and a solid Terry Lewis as Manny, the slightly cowed pianist. (Lewis’ accompaniment is first-rate.)
Director Joel Abels has crafted a precise yet informal tone to the proceedings, not an easy effect to pull off, and his use of the space — and the way he integrates the moments in the script when Callas lapses into soliloquies of remembrance — is deft, (Ben Holley does a nice job pushing the Shaghoian’s limited lighting grid to create a sense of intimacy and revelation.)
These solo moments are where the fireworks of the show occur, and they are, simply put, amazing. When Callas recounts her affair with the billionaire Aristotle Onassis, it’s with a ragged, brutal honesty. And in the high point, a rapturous recollection from Callas about a triumphant night at La Scala, it’s as if we’re there in the moment, inside her brain but also there with her on the stage, and as the recorded music swelled, I felt transported.
In his script, McNally has Callas return repeatedly to the theme of the “through line” of the artistic experience — how one singer builds upon the accomplishments of those who have come before, the famed roles in opera stretching all the way back to, say, the real Lady Macbeth herself. It’s the idea that art is part of the communal human experience, linking us to those who came before — and to those who will come after.
I thought of this theme in terms of the Maria Callas role in “Master Class” itself. Some powerful women have made this role their own: Zoe Caldwell, Patti LuPone, Faye Dunaway, Tyne Daly.
And Jacqueline Antaramian. What a privilege to be in the presence of a master.
Bee photo / Eric Paul Zamora