A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 71: Callas teaches and Branagh directs…

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Annette Miller as Maria Callas in Masterclass at Shakespeare and Company. Photo Kevin Sprague.
Annette Miller as Maria Callas in Masterclass at Shakespeare and Company. Photo Kevin Sprague.

The great pages in Terrence McNally’s Masterclass are those in which music takes stage. I know of no-one else who writes better about the act of music-making than Mr. McNally. Since the first student singer in the action sings very little, the words the playwright gives to Maria Callas as her teacher expand in our imagination into an imagined and sublime kind of singing, what we want it to be, what it ought to be. And most beautifully, he says that even the greenest student singer is connected to the long line of the piece, through herself, through her teacher, through the score, to the composer. The play is an in-house agon about being a singer. It is something the audience overhears.

More tiresome are the long reminiscences he gives to Madame Callas to grind through, the longer one giving a vicious but probably accurate picture of Aristotle Onassis; the more tender one, her gentle but firm rejection of her first husband, who made her La Scala debut a reality. The Callas we hear in this play is beyond self-absorbed. She manages her ego by talking Singing itself seems to her a cruel ritual, the very beauty of it an enemy she must conquer. A high note, a difficult passage, is heard as a ritual, not an expression. Annette Miller got this destructive absorption well and clearly. She was indefatigable. She didn’t try to mimic Callas’s voice on the historic Juilliard masterclass recordings too carefully. Deborah Grausman, as the second female student, sang well in a gentle trained voice, an aria that requires a fiery trumpet of a voice. The disparity between her singing and the Callas recording in the background was starkly dramatic. One felt the great distance the real Maria Callas must have felt trying to find a way into a piece like this with a struggling youngster. Tenor Alec Donaldson also sang well in his brief appearance. Nora Menken, as the first student, was completely believable, including her nervous laughter. Most wonderfully she did the expressions the Madame asked of her well indeed, and movingly. She was not nearly as bad as the teacher thought she was.

The play Masterclass has always seemed rambling to me in any incarnation I have seen, and it did so on this occasion as well. But there were good, honest performances which rose to a higher level when the art of singing itself was the talk on stage. Mr. McNally can make talking about music musical, and these actors followed him well. We did not hear it, but we believed it was there. We imagined greatness.

Much credit must go to the Berkshire Museum’ Little Cinema for showing Kenneth Branagh’s film of The Magic Flute by Mozart last week. The space is congenial, and the projection and sound were excellent. Let’s hope for more chances like this. That said, I cannot say that I liked it. The central problem (or opportunity) of The Magic Flute is to combine elements which are radically different: low comedy with late Mozartian sublimity, coming in rapid succession. This is particularly difficult to do in Act 2 where one static situation falls upon another, and there is only adequate comic relief near the end of the opera. Mr. Branagh’s concept overloaded both sides of the dramatic spectrum, though the comic side faired a little bit better. One example: the hero and heroine, Tamino and Pamina, must undergo two trials near the end of Act 2—one of water and one of fire. The music written for these journeys is ineffably simple and very quiet. Mr. Branagh presented these scenes with a fierce fire-storm and torrential floodwaters. It was almost as if he had not heard the music. Of course all this was done to make it fit his concept which was basically “war versus peace.” The problem was it didn’t fit the music. What I saw and what I heard if I closed my eyes were radically different. Much of the film was just too busy—the visual trumped the aural, and that is never a good sign at the opera. There were also striking moments—the stolid face and rich voice of Rene Pape made the mage Sarastro into a more believable human character than I have often seen in other productions. The young pairs of lovers, both the comic and the serious, looked the part and sang well. The score was richly conducted by James Conlon, richer in sound than what the prevailing wisdom likes and demands now. All in all, a good musical experience overloaded with frantic physical activity and a heavy concept which caused the director to use the Overture as music for a World War I battle in the trenches. I am not against a strong and new concept in opera direction. The great film Ingmar Bergmann made of The Magic Flute did just this. He included scenes which could have easily come from his great Wild Strawberries in the course of the opera-in black and white—while keeping us grounded in the theatrical, filming most of the work in the Drottningholm Theatre in best classical fashion. This kept the music connected to its roots, live theater played in a small space, loved by children.

Publicity Material for Kenneth Branagh's The Magic Flute
Publicity Material for Kenneth Branagh’s The Magic Flute
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