(Optus Playhouse)


It’s hard to believe that this is the same Amanda Muggleton who last played in the QPAC complex in May 2001 as the tipsy orphanage boss Miss Hannigan in Annie. She didn’t do a bad job in that show, but in this she is absolutely superb. Her Callas is a perfect piece of performance in which she takes to heart the messsage of Masterclass by totally entering the persona of her character.

The play centres on fading diva Maria Callas’s series of public singing lessons to a group of young performers at New York’s Juilliard School of Music in 1971-72. Thirty years later, Brisbane’s Optus Theatre audience become the masterclass observers, and we are variously lectured, scolded and confided in by a confident and imperious master of her art who dominates the stage for every second from her first dramatic entrance.

Beautifully made up to look the part, Muggleton brilliantly captures the Callas voice with a deftly combined Mediterranean and US accent. Her deep throaty sound and rolling r’s when repeating the Italian text of Verdi and Bellini arias is uncannily like the recordings of Callas in song.

The supporting characters are totally overwhelmed by the neurotic, bitchy diva, and each actor does well in portrayals of what Callas calls her “victims”. Melissa Madden as the gauche Sophie de Palma who lacks “the look”, Natasha Hunter as the all-American, feisty Sharon Graham and Mark Cinque as the chirpy little tenor Antonio Candolino, even accompanist Manny (a talented Tyrone Landau) all are humiliated by the merciless Callas, whose neurotic poses and self-absorption prevent her seeing any virtue in her pupils. Yet her instruction and example are indeed masterful, each fragment worth gold in assisting hopeful opera performers become more than “just singers”.

The journey in Callas’s mind from New York classroom to the Milan opera stage in her glory days is breathtakingly effective via highly focused spot lighting, the recording of Callas’s voice and projection of La Scala’s famous ascending rings of boxes and a Macbeth castle setting onto the semicircular set. We really do feel we are there, with her.

And in her journey we are drawn into Callas’s “stab of pain” world to share the passion of her relationship with the foul-mouthed trophy-collector Onassis and the tragedy of her being dumped for Jackie Kennedy. She vests her personal sufferings into her character interpretations of the arias which her hapless students attempt, and on whom is lost such riches as “vowels are the inarticulate murmurings of the heart”.

The first night audience’s standing ovation was richly deserved by a Muggleton who was obviously emotionally wrenched by the performance. Masterclass is really a homily on the nature of performance, on the demands on performers of whatever genre to identify absolutely with character and to give more than their all. Anyone who loves Verdi or Bellini or Shakespeare or, let’s face it, Art in any form, will love this Callas.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Wed 30th January 2002)