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Master Class: An Audience with Maria Callas – The infuriating genius of an opera legend

Theatre: Caitríona Ní Mhurchú gives a sharp performance while Conor Hanratty’s intelligent direction allows for seamless retreats into the past

Master Class: Caitríona Ní Mhurchú as Maria Callas, Niall Kinsella on piano and Rebecca Rodgers as one of Callas's students. Photograph: Ste Murray

Master Class: An Audience with Maria Callas

Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin

Opera has had its words twisted for some time. A prima donna, or leading lady, celebrated for her outstanding talent would traditionally be referred to as a diva – which means goddess in Latin – but nowadays neither term might sound complimentary. Somewhere along the way they got corkscrewed into takedowns that refer to temperamental women with an inflated view of their success.

No one seems to be more aware of the misunderstanding than Maria Callas, as portrayed in the absorbing Master Class, a dramatisation of the soprano’s appearances at the Juilliard School, in New York, at the end of her career. Rearranging the stage, in the middle of an explanation of why she doesn’t believe in using microphones, she sounds as if she bears a grudge: “If you can’t hear me, it’s your fault.”

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That’s not to say that Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning play, which was first produced in 1995, doesn’t portray Callas as a glamorous star. In Caitríona Ní Mhurchú’s sharp performance, the contrived demands made of the stage crew and the comments made about the audience’s personal style are delivered meanly but snappily, making them difficult not to enjoy. (McNally, who brought gay romance and culture into the American mainstream, knew well the mechanics of camp, and how it transmutes cruelty into comedy.)

What follows are the comings and goings of different opera students who are looking to learn from Callas, but she can’t resist the pull of memory, of talking her way into reflections on disintegrated relationships and an impoverished youth. One student – nicely played by Rebecca Rodgers – tries her best with the soprano’s observations, which at first sound intangible: “It’s not a note we’re after. It’s a stab of pain.” Impressively, the play makes a connection between notation and heartache, as both teacher and student translate a scene from Vincenzo Bellini’s comic opera La Sonnambula in which a rejected woman mourns a lost romance. Afterwards, Callas leans against the piano, reciting the Italian libretto, to the ache of Niall Kinsella’s accompaniment, as if she has lived what Bellini has written.


In this Smock Alley Theatre and Once Off Productions staging, Conor Hanratty’s intelligent direction allows for seamless retreats into the past, into the woeful power plays of Callas’s lovers. Her ex-husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini is seen mocking her untoned body (“You can’t f**k a voice”) while Aristotle Onassis is depicted as a parasite on her prestige who wants to avoid commitment.

That may explain her hard edges and frightening behaviour, although, at a time when bullying artistic geniuses are something society is trying to address, Callas still seems infuriating. By the conclusion, one of her students – a quick-witted Kelli-Ann Masterson – lashes out, saying that the star isn’t someone worth worshipping. It’s an ending that feels as if it has lasting power, and gets to the frustrating contradictions of the word “diva”. No one needs to be like Callas, or even to like her. But it remains the case that no one has been able to sing like her since.

Runs at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin 8, until Saturday, May 27th

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture