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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014

Angela Iannone’s ‘Master Class’

Chamber Theatre’s magnificent season opener

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Decades after her death, Maria Callas is still among the world’s best known opera stars. Every inch the diva, she was a temperamental force of nature and the power of her voice and her presence could never be ignored.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opened its 40th season last Friday with Master Class, Terence McNally’s Tony-winning close focus on Callas in late career. Reprising the role she played for the Chamber Theatre and the Madison Rep in the ’90s, Angela Iannone erased the distinction between actor and character. She didn’t simply evoke Callas but willed her into being on stage.

The story concerns the diva in decline. Like an athlete over 40, Callas is past her peak of performance but knows the art and the craft of her profession as well as anyone in the world. In Master Class, Callas is teaching aspiring opera singers and finds all of them wanting—not in talent, which can be learned through rote and rehearsal, but in understanding, which demands a leap of imagination for performers who imagine only the applause for hitting the high notes.

The imperious Callas is a stern teacher, whether delivering her maxims with a twinkle in her eye or a scathing tongue. Her blunt asides fill Master Class with more laughter than many productions billed as comedy, and yet her humor has a serious agenda. “It’s not the note we’re after here, it’s the stab of pain—of loss,” she tells one uncomprehending student. “It’s not just a question of singing.”

Tell that to the bellowing, callow champions of “American Idol.” For Callas, the art of expressing the human condition enriches the world, even if the world cares little or expects those riches for free—a problem that has only intensified in the digital age.

The lessons Callas delivers trigger memories: the tiered balconies of La Scala appear against the stage’s back wall, a recording of the real Callas is heard and the star is transported back to the summit of her profession as an artist, which also included the bitter enjoyment of triumph over rivals and painful recollections of her celebrated affair with Aristotle Onassis, a man who cared for nothing that he couldn’t purchase.

Iannone filled the stage as Callas. In her hands, Master Class could have been staged as a one-woman show, since the supporting characters are largely sounding boards for the diva’s insights and tirades, whether the aspiring singers (Alicia Berneche, Melissa Cardamone, Edson Melendez), the piano accompanist (Brian Myers) or the puzzled stagehand (James Fletcher). Directors Jill Anna Ponasik and James Zager kept the production well paced with nothing to distract from the star. Callas would have been pleased by the attention.

Master Class continues at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre (158 N. Broadway) through Aug. 24. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com.