Thursday, August 12, 2010

A masterpiece in "Master Class"

“Maria Callas is teaching a master class in front of an audience (us). She is glamorous, commanding, larger than life and drop-dead funny. An accompanist sits at the piano. Callas' first "victim" is Sophie, a ridiculous, overly-perky soprano, dressed all in pink.

"Sophie chooses to sing one of the most difficult arias, the sleepwalking scene from “La Sonnambula,” an aria that Callas made famous. Before the girl sings a note, Callas stops her she clearly can't stand hearing music massacred. And now what has started out as a class has become a platform for Callas. She glories in her own career, dabbles in opera dish and flat-out seduces the audience. Callas gets on her knees and acts the entire aria in dumb show, eventually reducing the poor singer to tears. But with that there are plenty of laughs going on, especially between Callas and the audience. Callas pulls back and gives Sophie a chance to use what she's learned. As soon as Sophie starts singing, though, Callas mentally leaves the room and goes into a sprawling interior monologue about her own performance of that aria and the thunderous applause she received at La Scala. Callas wakes up and sends Sophie off with a pat.

"The next two sessions repeat the same dynamic, only the middle session is with a tenor who moves Callas to tears. She again enters her memories, and we learn about Callas' affair with Aristotle Onassis; an abortion she was forced to have; her first elderly husband whom she left; her early days as an ugly duckling; the fierce hatred of her rivals; and the unforgiving press that savaged her at first. Finally, we meet Sharon, another soprano, who arrives in a full ball gown. With Sharon singing, Callas is genuinely moved, for the young singer has talent, but Callas tells her to stick to flimsy roles. Sharon is devastated and spits back every nasty thing you've ever heard about Callas: She's old, washed up; she ruined her voice too early in her career; she only wants people to worship her, etc. Sharon rushes out of the hall, and Callas brings the class to a close with a beautiful speech about the sacrifices we must make in the name of art.”

- Synopsis of Terrence McNally’s “Masterclass”


I was introduced to the great Maria Callas years ago when, as a typical struggling, broke young theater artist, way before pirated CDs can be bought at every street corner, I was browsing through a stack of audio CDs on sale in some record store. I simply wanted to get my hands on anything that can augment my very lean music collection on CD (cassette tapes were still an option then, and a much cheaper one at that). I chanced upon this album with a portrait of a beautiful woman on the cover called, Live! by Maria Callas. Together with two other CDs on sale - a Vivaldi and a Bach, my hard earned chump change got me three discs. What started out as an attempt to simply boost my CD collection became a love affair with classical music that lives on to date, much thanks to Callas’ powerful, engaging... ah, who am I kidding - her voice is indescribable, you’ll just have to hear, nay, experience it.

Cherie Gil as Maria Callas

For the last few weeks, I kept on getting invitations and reminders about those invitations from a good friend to make a trip to Manila to experience Terrence McNally's 1996 Drama Desk Award and 1996 Tony Award Winning Show, “Master Class.” I had no idea what it was, but I wanted so bad to make it to one of the performances if only to be there when two of Baguio's best theater talents go on the legitimate stage alongside other renowned performing artists.

I did all I can to make time for it, but sadly, previous commitments prevented me from making that trip to Manila. So I did the next best thing: I interviewed that good friend, Kay Balajadia-Liggayu, who plays soprano “Sharon Graham” in this production and had her walk me, us, through the whole thing:


Me: How did you get the part?

Kay Balajadia-Liggayu: I auditioned to be part of the cast. I actually auditioned for the role of the tamer soprano, Sophie de Palma who sings Bellini as I felt the aria “Ah! non credea mirarti” suited my voice more. But the director (Michael Williams), although he sounded happy with my reading and singing, asked me to audition for the not so tame-nervous wreck-high strung soprano, Sharon Graham. I told him I didn't know the aria. And he said, “study it and come back in two hours.” I did just that and got the role.

Me: So tell us, what is this play all about?

KBL: I think the material is brilliant. It is reflective not only of Maria Callas and her feelings, frustrations, fears, pains, ambitions, and principles as an artist but also of Maria Callas as person. The Maria Callas portrayed offstage is more vulnerable, more real, a person who was heartbroken. Her passion was for everything that she did and she didn't care if she got hurt in giving her all. And in this sense, artists and non artists can relate to how such consuming passion can be both fulfilling and destructive.

The material is semi fictional because it was based on actual masterclasses held at the Juilliard School and which the playwright Terrence McNally witnessed himself. There is actually a DVD of those masterclasses held by Maria Callas.

Me: Your role?
Kay Balajadia-Liggayu

KBL: I play the role of Sharon Graham, one of the students of Maria Callas, who sings the aria “Vieni T'affretta,” the aria of Lady Macbeth form the opera Macbeth by Verdi.

Sharon Graham is extremely nervous facing Maria Callas so that she actually throws up because of her fear of the legendary dramatic soprano. She ends up performing well and is complimented by "La Divina" but Maria Callas, unpredictable as ever, puts her down in the end and tells Sharon that she does not have the voice for the aria she chose. Sharon's anger gets the better of her and she screams hateful words at Maria Callas.

Me: Walks us through the process of putting this show together.

KBL: At the start, we had several readings to get used to the flow of the words and to try to "cure" some accents. We studied the thoughts and actions behind the lines because the director wanted the interactions between the actors to be as real and direct as possible. "NO ACTING" was the motto. The theatre was supposed to be like the venue at Juilliard and the audience should be part of the masterclass. Later in the period of rehearsals, interrelationships were analyzed and approaches refined. Workshops were held.

Me: How would you compare local performing artists to the artists you're working with in this production?

KBL: I always tell people everywhere that Baguio Artists are extremely talented and can compete anywhere in the world. Even with the dearth in opportunities for artists in Baguio, the talent and ability still shines. If “Master Class” was staged in Baguio, we would have a cast that can be comparable to the cast we have in Manila now.

Me: Allow to digress a bit. What do you think Baguio theater needs to produce a masterpiece such as Master Class?

KBL: Baguio theatre needs funding. The Baguio performing arts scene needs to be supported and promoted by the government. The performing arts should be appreciated and seen not as a hobby but as a professional undertaking that deserves no less than proper compensation and respect. Maria Callas says in the play something to the effect that what we are doing is art and art is beauty, and we should be paid for what we do, and properly paid for it. She also aptly describes the state in Baguio: We bare our hearts and souls as artists and what do they say...they say "huh?"

The passion and commitment is also in the lines "Ho dato tutto a te:" I gave everything to you and there is nothing left to give.


I can’t help but think that this play seem to tell the story of local artists here in Baguio.

If you want and do have the time to journey down to Manila for a life-changing evening of masterful theater, you may still catch Ms. Balajadia-Liggayu perform in the last performance of “Master Class” which features Cherie Gil as the great Maria Callas, with another Baguio artist, tenor Juan Alberto Gaerlan as Anthony Candolino on August 15, 2010 at 3:30PM at the RCBC CARLOS P. ROMULO AUDITORIUM, Gil Puyat Ave. cor. Ayala Ave., Makati. Also in the cast are Florence Aguilar as Sophie de Palma, Ana Feleo (who alternates with Ms. Balajadia-Liggayu), Francis Amora as the pianist Manny, and Chino Veguillas as the stagehand.

For inquiries, call/text 09162613452 (Jay) or 09175100527 (Kay).

The cast of "Master Class" with director Michael Williams (center, in red)

No comments:

Post a Comment