Master Class

Salt Lake Acting Company, known throughout the state for doing cutting-edge, critically acclaimed plays that you don’t see anywhere else in Utah, has kicked off its new season with a brightly sad production of “Master Class.”

Written by Terrence McNally (“Ragtime,” “Kiss of the Spiderwoman”), “Master Class” is a Tony Award-winning play with a clever concept. Its main character, fading opera diva Maria Callas (Anne Cullimore Decker) speaks directly to the audience as if we are all observers of the singing class for which she is the instructor.

Maria was once quite the thing on the international opera scene, beating the odds to sing all the major roles, and even having an affair with Aristotle Onassis. Now she is washed up, though she retains her pride and confidence — perhaps more of each than she really has reason to. She is still as self-centered as any diva — fortunate for us, because it means most of the play consists of her talking to us, in one-woman-show fashion, often ignoring, interrupting or speaking over her students.

Decker is perfect in the role of Maria. She is haughty, passionate, professional, beautiful, dignified, aristocratic, funny and, ultimately, desperate. Twice during the play, while her pupils are singing roles she once sang, instead of listening to them in order to give feedback, she comes center stage to talk to us. The arias remind her of her glory days: Lady Macbeth’s evil schemes in particular cause her to relive her own Machiavellian desires in rising to the top of the opera world. But like Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play and Verdi’s opera, Maria doesn’t stay at the top for long, personal and professional tragedy intervening.

It makes for fascinating theater, even though there are virtually no props and no set pieces. Maria’s two long flashbacks, in which she replays conversations and re-enacts performances, are enthralling and captivating.

The weakness in this production, directed by David Mong, is in the supporting characters. Maria’s three students are played by people who, as actors, are excellent opera singers. It ultimately doesn’t matter too much because Maria is the focus anyway, but it is slightly unsettling to see second-rate acting from the characters who should be bolstering Decker’s performance, not detracting from it.

“Master Class” is intelligent without being stuffy. It is very funny in many instances, sad in others, but always dignified — even as Maria quotes Ari Onassis’ vulgar diatribes against her. References are made to icons of high culture such as Medea, Euripedes, Shakespeare, and several famous operas. It’s not for the casual theater-goer, but neither is it pretentious or self-important. Maria emerges as a person as real and as tragically humorous as any opera character.

A very unusual and interesting play. I had seen only the low-brow farce "Saturday's Voyeur" at this theater prior to "Master Class," so I was most delighted to see that it was very intelligent and well-done without being too "cultural" (i.e., snooty).