Sheri Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. She is head writer for Choice The Musical, half of the comedy duo Flanders and part of the Infinite Sundaes musical house ensemble. Sheri is a contributor for Chicagoland Musical Theater, a faculty member of the Second City music program and co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Pictured: Janet Ulrich Brooks. Photo by Lara Goetsch.
By Sheri Flanders
“You are here to subjugate yourself to the music; the composer is God.” – Maria Callas, Masterclass
The belief that suffering is mandatory to create excellence is canon. Ballerinas dance until their toes bleed; clichés like the alcoholic writer and the mad painter are the brick and mortar of our artistic mythos, and behind every successful artist stands an impossibly demanding mentor. Produced by Timeline Theatre, MASTER CLASS is the story of the end of the tragically short career of world-renowned opera-singer-turned-teacher Maria Callas.
The traditionally male stereotype of the viciously unrelenting master is a story trope whose time is slowly coming to an end. Through the lens of modern society, depictions of abuse land heavier and tend to eclipse the benefit of genius, rather than stand justified as a necessary evil. Fortunately, when told through a woman’s eyes, delivered from the expert pen of Playwright Terrence McNally in 1995, and placed against the backdrop of WWII, we gain just enough new mileage for one last rousing joyride before tossing this genre into the junkheap of history.
Fun fact: it turns out that watching an opera class is actually more entertaining than attending the opera. Janice Ulrich Brooks immediately commands the stage with a fierce, no-nonsense presence, lashing out at and bossing around the audience and a procession of victims – er, opera students. It would not be unfair to call the first portion of the play an extended highbrow insult comedy routine, full of cutting humor that draws vicious, bloody laughs.
The beautifully written and well-paced script is structured loosely, allowing for a bit of talkback and casual audience participation. Engaging the audience in this way is extremely rare to see outside of Black, LGBTQ, or improvisational theatrical spaces, but most rarely in a show geared towards “cultured” audiences. It is a powerful technique, executed expertly by Brooks, which invites the timid audience to fully invest in the artifice of the classroom setting.
The old adage “those that can’t do, teach” rarely tells the entire story. On the surface, we see a haughty diva who can’t deign to remember the name of her accompanist (played with a quiet hilarity by Stephen Boyer), and who rips through fragile students like tissue; disposable and insubstantial. Yet as time goes on, we see glimpses of an experienced, wounded woman, teaching the younger generation tough love and harsh lessons whose full gravity they will hopefully never understand.
One of the supreme highlights of the show is listening to the “students” practice their pieces. Molly Hernandez, Eric Anthony Lopez and Keirsten Hodgens are all superb vocalists, and the intimate space allows the audience to drink in the full measure their outstanding, soaring tenor and soprano acrobatics in a way that would be impossible to experience from the cheap seats through a pair of opera glasses.
The framing of the story is lovely and unusual, offering we mortals an escape from the drudgery of our daily grind, into a rarefied world where the crème-de-la-crème indulge in the music of the leisure class. Beautifully staged, Arnel Sancianco’s elegant blonde wooden set mimics the curved body of a grand piano. Lighting designer Jessica Niell sets an exquisite mood; at one key moment, a spotlight throws a subtle Virgin Mary-esque halo on the stage behind Brooks.
Maria Callas transformed herself from rough-around-the-edges Evangelia Kalogeropoulos (her birth name) into one of the most unique and revered sopranos the world has ever seen. The world rarely forgives women for unapologetic career ambition, and the final lesson of MASTER CLASS is that the destructive and callous self-sacrifice required to achieve such dizzying heights is like chewing an aspirin; bitter yet effective.
MASTER CLASS runs through December 9 at Stage 773. For more information visit timelinetheatre.com.