November 21, 2003





'Master' delivers on its lessons


Genius resists explanation, least of all by geniuses themselves. So why should we listen to the erratic, self-indulgent Maria Callas, who leads Terrence McNally's "Master Class" with all the delicacy of a drill sergeant?


Put another way: Did Callas' otherworldly brilliance at the midcentury height of her operatic career make her an authority on her art, outside the practice of it?


The answer provided by McNally's alternately riveting and maddening play, which premiered locally at the Mark Taper Forum in 1995, is a resounding yes and no. In director Simon Levy's handsome, intimate revival, we see the play anew as an impassioned demonstration of how inseparable a great practitioner's art is from herself. She is her art, in essence, and that not only can't be taught--it can barely be understood.


As Callas, Karen Kondazian embodies this irreducibly personal vision down to her toes. A diva in her own right, Kondazian nails the role's sweeping hauteur and catty humor. More importantly, she plumbs both extremes of Callas' emotional journey, from the ecstasy of her world-beating success to the abject depths of her misbegotten love life.


Levy has mixed success with the students who bravely face the master's abuse: Danielle Nice sings better than she acts, Terence Jay vice versa. Achieving the right balance of character and vocal prowess is nervy Hila Plithmann as a soprano bullied into a fiery rendition of an aria from "Macbetto." When she turns the anger back on her domineering teacher, Callas admits feebly, "Maybe this teaching has been a mistake." She's only half right. This "Master Class" may be tough on its ostensible students, but for us it proves a wrenching, cathartic life lesson.

Rob Kendt


"Master Class," the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 21. $25. (323) 663-1525. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.