Andrea Eckert’s towering performance brings Maria Callas to life in Hamburg

GermanyGermany Terence McNally, Master Class: Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, 20.3.2024. (DMD)

Curtain call: [l to r] Oliver Mülich, Daniel Grosse Boymann, Andrea Eckert, Claudia Emà Camie, Teresa Gardner and Pablo Cameselle © Daniel Dittus

Staging – Arie Zinger and ensemble
Stage design – John Lloyd Davies
Costume design – Birgit Hutter
Visual design – Arnulf Rainer
Make-up – Oliver Mülich

Maria Callas – Andrea Eckert
Manny Weinstock – Daniel Grosse Boymann
Sophie de Palma – Claudia Emà Camie
Sharon Graham – Teresa Gardner
Anthony Candolino – Pablo Cameselle
A stagehand – Oliver Mülich

The commercial and artistic successes of the theatre productions of Piaf (by Pam Gems) by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978 and Amadeus (by Peter Shaffer) at the Royal National Theatre in 1979 launched an unprecedented and long-lasting wave of plays about famous artists, predominantly in the UK and the USA. Master Class by Terence McNally, with Maria Callas as the central character, forms part of that wave. The play was first presented on Broadway in 1995 and received its first Austrian production in 1997 at the Wiener Volkstheater, directed by Arie Zinger and with Andrea Eckert as Maria Callas. On the occasion of Callas’s 100th birthday, Eckert reprised her role in a revival of that production. The performance on 20th March at the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, curated by André Heller as part of a week of performances and related events from all over the world, marked the 200th performance of Zinger’s production since its opening in 1997, all with Eckert as Maria Callas.

A dramatist may choose to write a play about a famous artist as a homage, a celebration, focussing on the artist’s glorious achievements. Master Class is not in that category, because this play shares with other plays about ‘famous artist characters’ the challenge of combining an insight into the nature of the artist character’s artistic greatness with an insight into their private lives with all their human problems. For a play like Master Class, a clearly defined dramaturgical frame is needed to present that combination. McNally selected the context of the master class as a frame to present Callas the diva as both person and artist. In the play she encounters three students, two sopranos and a tenor, and teaches them the famous energy that characterised her own performances. This energy transforms the students’ singing from a status of promisingly limited to considerably improved in a short period of time. The context of the master class allows McNally to combine the teaching with longer passages in which Callas reminisces about her life. The actress mimes singing to a soundtrack of some of Callas’ major roles – the actress is not required to sing.

The context selected by McNally works only to some extent. I have seen several live master classes taught by Susan Bullock, Dennis O’Neill and Sir Thomas Allan, among others, and numerous ones available on YouTube. The nervousness, the awkwardness, the deferential behaviour of the three student characters in the play do reflect the behaviour of students in real life. In the play, Callas puts her entire heart into her art and teaching, despite the apparently harsh way she deals with her students. In the master classes I observed, the teaching was most efficient when it was obvious how heartfelt it was. In the play, Callas focuses on the singer’s feelings, their understanding of the character and the music. She does not demonstrate to her students and does not talk in technical terms about voice production. McNally thus avoids the need for the performer to sing live on stage, and thus the play does not become too specific for a non-specialist audience. In real-life master classes, most teachers will also focus on aspects of technique, and again most will do so by demonstrating – and in doing so they hold an implicit attraction for audiences attending a master class: hearing the master’s voice, if only briefly, and hopefully still in exceptional shape. When the teacher’s voice can be heard singing at live master classes, an audible intake of breath in the audience often follows the first sound, and a round of applause is inevitable at the end. McNally was not able to reproduce these aspects of a real master class in the play.

The choice of context also meant that for the phases during which the play focuses on Callas’ memories, it recedes into the background: the lights on the piano accompanist and student fade out and the is on Callas, at times with footage of the real Callas projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.

Andrea Eckert as Maria Callas © Daniel Dittus

Casting makes all the difference for plays like these. Andrea Eckert is one of the leading actors of her generation worldwide, and her portrayal of Maria Callas provided ample demonstration of her consummate artistry. She inhabited her character fully from beginning to end, speaking German with a Greek accent, full of passion, with an acute awareness of her diva status, relishing the power it brings both to embarrass others, to make them feel happy when she praises them and to push them beyond their limits to free their (vocal) potential. That exceptionally high level of accomplishment made up fully for the shortcomings of the play.

The character of pianist Manny Weinstock has a few lines, in addition to accompanying the students. Daniel Grosse Boymann gave us a secure and accomplished pianist in appropriate awe of the diva. Callas spends most of her and our time at the master class with the first of the three students. Claudia Emà Camie played the character of Sophie de Palma with Eckert in the original 1997 production. Her master class piece is Amina’s aria ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’ from Bellini’s La sonnambula. Pablo Cameselle’s character chooses Cavaradossi’s ‘Recondita armonia’; Teresa Gardner’s character sings Lady Macbeth’s ‘Vieni! t’affretta’. It was impressive how these three professional singers conveyed the vocal development Callas brought to the singing of their chosen arias over a short period of time. Their acting stood out as well, as nervous students in the presence of a great diva.

Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe

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