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Friday, April 27, 2012

Master Class is Masterful: Local Theatre Review

By the time Jacqueline Antaramian reaches the emotional crescendo of Act One in Master Class, she has completely inhabited the body and spirit of the late, great opera diva, Maria Callas. She has also summoned by her spectacular performance all of our own deep, latent emotional rawness. I was sitting in the second row too exposed to turn around to see if the large preview audience made up of Fresno State and local high school budding singers were also fighting back tears like me. My bet is that most of them were.
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This joint venture by Fresno Grand Opera and StageWorks Fresno draws you in like the pull of a full-moon tide. It opens tonight, Friday, April 27, 2012, at 8pm at the Paul Shaghoian Concert Hall at the Clovis North Educational Complex, for a much-too-short three-day run. That means if you want to see a memorable performance you'll take to your grave, you better get tickets now. Saturday's performance is also at 8pm and Sunday's matinee is at 2pm.

Directed by the incomparable Joel Abels, founder of StageWorks Fresno, Abels has assembled a terrific cast that includes not only two Broadway understudies, but local talent that never disappoints, like his songbird daughter, Taylor Abels. Taylor is just one of three of Callas' students seeking her expertise. There's the spry tenor who brings Callas to tears and the defiant up-and-comer. All three, along with pianist Manny are exceptional counterpoints to Antaramian's tour de force. What voices. These singers had the real-life expertise of local vocal coach Terry Estrabrook who made sure the Italian was true. What these students get from Callas, however, is not the expected cruelty and bitterness of a has-been, but the wit and vulnerability of a star who once was the highest paid opera singer in the world.

You don't have to know anything about – or even like – opera or Shakespeare, or Callas for that matter to love this play. Through the theatrical device of playwright Terrence McNally, Callas addresses the audience and explains the characters, plot and settings necessary to wring every emotion for every operatic performance. But, like each of us, Callas is full of contradictions. She is not too old and jaded to be moved – or hurt – by her students.

This production points out the obvious: why reality shows full of Kardashians, Lohans and Snookis are so fundamentally unsatisfying. If only we had seen Kim grieving over her lost love like Maria Callas over her beloved Ari Onassis (who threw her off to marry Jackie Kennedy), we could have some empathy for Kim. Callas' romance was bittersweet and, ultimately, tragic. Kardashian's was artificial and false.

Master Class has lessons for all of us. It reminds us so profoundly that we still have the tension between ones feminism and femininity; between the cockiness and ambitiousness of youth and the power of experience; between the structure and discipline necessary for creativity to flourish and the balls-to-the-wall passion of genius.

This production brings Broadway at its best to the burbs. Just think of the money we've saved in airfare to New York. We are so very lucky, indeed. Don't miss this.

Image source: Stage Works Fresno

Patricia Brown has been practicing Family Law in the Central Valley for twenty years. She went to law school in NYC where she went through Broadway shows like M & Ms. Her biggest accomplishment in life is being a stage mom. This is her second review for KingsRiverLife and KRL has also published some of her mystery short stories.

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