Had she been born a few decades later, soprano Maria Callas wouldn’t be teaching like she is in Terrance McNally’s fascinating “Master Class.” She would more likely be overseeing a reality show empire: “America’s Next Top Soprano.” That’s no diss. Spend two hours in the classroom with “La Divina,” and you’ll see a woman whose formidable wit and unrivaled mastery of her field is more than a little Tyra Banksian. Actually, scratch that. It’s the supermodel who is more than a little Maria Callasian. The singer’s willingness to break and remake her students is a methodology that will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of “America’s Next Top Model.”

‘Master Class’
★★★
When: Through Dec. 9
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Tickets: $42.50 – $56.50
Info: TimeLineTheatre.com

Whatever your frame of reference, McNally’s drama is engrossing. Like opera itself, TimeLine’s staging is filled with huge emotions. There’s ecstasy and agony in “Master Class,” both writ huge, like the art form Callas dominated from the 1940s through the early 1960s. With Janet Ulrich Brooks as Callas, director Nick Bowling makes the audience a fly on the wall for the three Juilliard master classes that comprise McNally’s two-act play.

Callas’ life story and emotional trauma rises to the surface of the classes like a high, sustained “C” rising up in the emotional peak of an aria. Brooks-as-Callas captures the tragedy and unlikely triumph, laying bare Callas’ lifelong struggles with weight, self-loathing and massive ego.

Dripping with diamonds center-stage at La Scala, Callas became divine, the center of the universe, capable of wonders. Brooks captures the emotional extremes. She speaks volumes with the flick of a wrist or the arch of an eyebrow. She doesn’t sing in “Master Class.” She doesn’t need to. McNally’s text has the depth of opera. Brooks delivers it with maximum impact.

Soprano Sharon (Keirsten Hodgens) begins her vocal session with Maria Callas (Janet Ulrich Brooks) in "Master Class" at TimeLine Theatre. | Lara Goetsch Photo

Soprano Sharon (Keirsten Hodgens) begins her vocal session with Maria Callas (Janet Ulrich Brooks) in “Master Class” at TimeLine Theatre. | Lara Goetsch Photo

Throughout, Callas’ early years plays out in flashback monologues that blend seamlessly with the passages of Verdi, Bellini and Cherubini. These passages of heartbreak and suffering are full-up with pathos that could tumble into bathos with one wrong breath. Brooks remains balanced throughout, capturing the pain without languishing in it.

The trio of “Master Class” students are moths to Callas’ incandescent flame. Last up is Sharon (Keirsten Hodgens), who spends roughly a minute with Callas before fleeing to throw up. When we see Sharon next, she’s shucked off her armor. What’s left is bravery and talent —  raw, frightened and luminous. As she did in the Marriott’s “Ragtime,” Hodgens gets as close to alchemy as mortals can: She turns the notes to music, and makes the music sing.

Not so successful is Callas’ first student, Sophie (Molly Hernandez). It’s a tough assignment: Sophie will do fine in a chorus somewhere. She’s someone who blends in rather than lights up the stage. Hernandez makes that obvious while also making Sophie a figure of sympathy, albeit a callow one.

Tenor Tony (Eric Anthony Lopez) also has his worldview rearranged by La Davina. Lopez makes Tony the embodiment of a mediocre, slightly-above-average, twentysomething man who has been told his entire life that he is special and gifted. Callas quickly brings him face-to-face with hubris.

It’s difficult to overstate the power that music director Doug Peck and actor/pianist Stephen Boyer (who plays Manny, the master classes’ accompanist) bring to the production. Boyer has the shy, adoring demeanor of a schoolboy crushing on his idol. His keyboard skills almost defy description. His Lady Macbeth music (from Verdi’s opera) is an onslaught of discordant malevolence. His love songs ache with longing.

Where McNally falters in “Master Class” is in the title’s second word. Callas’ mastery is unmistakable. But although inspired by a series of real Juilliard classes Callas gave in the early 1970s, “Master Class” is wanting. As a teacher, Callas in the play spends most of her time berating her star-struck students. When learning occurs, it’s in spite of her barrage of insults, not because of them, sometimes lacking the most fundamental knowledge of their craft.

Still, the performances Bowling gets from his cast are impressive, the stories they tell fascinating. Set designer Arnel Sancianco’s classroom is simple, sleek and beautiful. Sweeping blonde wood arcs around the players, a massive concert Steinway the only thing on stage but for a music stand, a stool and (eventually) a footrest. Andrew Hansen’s sound is a character – or rather a multitude of characters – by itself, seamlessly integrating passages from Callas performing with Boyer’s mastery of their scores.

Early in the first act, soprano Sophie eagerly responds to a directive with “I’ll try.” Callas’ response is frosty enough to wither the entire tobacco belt. People don’t buy tickets and leave their homes to see artists “try,” Callas says. If that’s the best Sophie can do, she should consider another profession.

Nobody in TimeLine’s production is merely trying. They’ve created something beautiful and troubling and fascinating. Callas’ bright, short life is at its white-hot center. The students in her orbit get burned. But like the audience, they emerge from class with a deeper appreciation of art, beauty and the elusive quest for greatness.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.