“There are no easy ways in art. No shortcuts,” the lead actress said at the Hylton Performing Arts Center on Thursday night. “There is no getting to center stage as if by magic. There is always an entrance first, just as there is always an exit after.”
Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” at the Hylton Center through Sunday, is about that journey. It depicts a superstar diva navigating her uneasy exit as she coaches a new generation on how to make its entrance. Throughout it all, the lead actress — Broadway veteran Lisa Vroman in the role of legendary opera singer Maria Callas — never loses her command of center stage.
Lyric Opera Virginia, the three-year-old Virginia Beach-based company that produces not only operas but plays that pertain to opera, staged its first Northern Virginia show this week with “Master Class.”The production — which will be performed in Virginia Beach, Williamsburg and Richmond in May — features Vroman and four professional opera performers, and includes students from George Mason University in technical jobs, as understudies and in one brief onstage part.
“Master Class,” which won Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Play in 1996, focuses on the actual classes that Callas taught at the Juilliard School after her meteoric international opera career sputtered out and before she died at 53 in 1977.
In the play, Callas is an exasperatingly exacting critic of her fragile students’ attempts. “I don’t bite, I promise you,” she tells them. “I bark. I bark quite a bit.”
All three students, played in Lyric Opera Virginia’s production by Joshua Baumgardner, Aundi Marie Moore and Sarah Kate Walston, have sensational voices that fill the Hylton Center, delivering powerful renditions of classic arias. But their music, though it reaches the rafters, is just background accompaniment. This show is all about Callas.
She hardly sings, but she delivers many of her witty lines in musical cadence. She snaps about her troubled childhood (“I was never young. I couldn’t afford to be, to get where I was going”), the toll that fame took on her personal life (“They yell, ‘Brava, la divina,’ and all they want to know is what we do in bed”) and her defiant attitude (“A performance is a struggle. I have to win. The audience is the enemy”).
Vroman lives in Pasadena and performs in concerts and musicals worldwide — in the past few months, she has jetted to locations including China, Paris and Peoria — but she knows the Hylton Center well. She performed in the concert that marked its grand opening. She said that she hoped “Master Class” would attract Prince William County audiences even if they are unfamiliar with Callas’s life and music.
“No matter what, there’s music, and there’s such a story,” Vroman said. She has taught similar master classes herself, and she said that the play offers an accurate depiction of artistic training. “I think that’s exciting for someone, to see what goes inside of it.”
The production itself was a sort of master class for the George Mason students involved, director Greg Ganakas said. “Part of this is kind of real life, because they’re watching the play and watching us rehearse,” he said. “It’s a natural fit.”