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November 04, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, November 04, 2005

Pear Avenue follows the talent Pear Avenue follows the talent (November 04, 2005)

Theater's newest production, 'Master Class,' examines the dizzying life of opera star Maria Callas

By Katie Vaughn

The latest production at Pear Avenue Theatre both celebrates and examines the complexities of one of opera's greatest stars. Terrence McNally's "Master Class" centers on the Greek-American soprano Maria Callas.

"She is regarded by many people as the most brilliant opera singer of the 20th century," said Diane Tasca, The Pear's artistic director who headlines as Callas in the play. "She brought back drama to opera."

Director Jane Geesman agreed, explaining that Callas' fame was due not only to her powerful voice, but to the strong sense of characterization she created in each of her roles.

"There's much more to being an effective opera singer than having just a good voice," Geesman said. "What she brought to her roles had not been seen before."

Callas' private life was also well known. Of particular interest to the public was her long relationship with millionaire Aristotle Onassis, who abruptly left her to marry the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy.

However, the Tony Award-winning play focuses on Callas after her opera career is over -- her voice is shot, Onassis has left her and the famed performing arts school Juilliard has asked her to teach a series of master classes for up-and-coming singers. Tasca believes that setting the play after Callas' prime allows for a deeper investigation into the character of the performer.

"When you've been great, what happens when the music stops and the parade's gone by?" Tasca said.

Callas led the classes in her real life -- in the years before her death in 1977 -- but more humbly than portrayed in the play. In "Master Class," Callas is alternately cruel and charming, and jealous of one talented young woman in her class.

"In real life, she was very nice to the students," Tasca said. "But what McNally has done is take Callas' fireworks and bring them into the context of the master class."

The resulting scenes range from heartbreaking to hilarious, mostly due to Callas' larger-than-life personality.

"She's a diva in a kind of non-diva situation," Tasca said.

Adding depth to the play are a number of monologues by Callas, which move the setting to various time periods and allow a better understanding of the singer's career and struggles.

"We see her as she was near the end of her life, but some of her monologues take the audience back in time," Geesman said. "We get to experience her then and now."

Ultimately, the play paints a portrait of Callas as a contradictory person; she was a world-famous performer with a nearly perfect voice, yet she had flaws and was often very lonely.

"She's not a particularly reasonable person, but I find her very sympathetic," Tasca said.

For the Pear's production, Tasca is reviving the role she played years ago at a theater in Hayward just before starting the Pear. It's a character she always kept tucked in her mind with hopes of playing it again.

Although she plays the opera star, Tasca doesn't showcase her own vocals in "Master Class." Rather, several recordings of Callas are played, and her three cast mates, who play her students and are themselves professional singers, perform. Rounding out the cast are a pianist and a stagehand played by the Pear's stage manager.

The small cast is echoed in the simple set, which involves only a baby grand piano. Geesman said the minimalist set appropriately keeps the attention on Callas and the other characters.

"It looks stripped-down, but what you have in there is a creation of a whole life," Tasca said. "It's life in beautiful, bold, big letters, and it's extremely entertaining."

Both Tasca and Geesman said that in addition to presenting an intricate look at Callas as a person and performer, "Master Class" illustrates the profound amount of time and energy artists devote to their craft. Callas, they said, was an extraordinary example of artistic sacrifice and ambition, making her the ideal subject of a play.

"It's a study, to some extent, in ambition." Tasca said.

"Opera is kind of a grand version of theater, and Maria Callas is kind of a grand version of an artist."

INFORMATION What: "Master Class," presented by Pear Avenue Theatre Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K When: Nov. 4-20, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Contact: Call (650) 254-1148 or visit

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