UPDATE: Director Kate Murray has posted the following on Facebook:
“The remaining performances of Master Class have been canceled due to an unforeseen circumstance. If you have tickets for the performances on 4/30 or 5/1 and need assistance in exchanging your tickets or a refund, please contact the box office at (607) 321-9630. We thank you for your understanding and support of local arts.”

Reviewed by Katherine Karlson

Although Andrea Gregori has portrayed Maria Callas no fewer than five times, her current take on “La Divina” in the new BLAST production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class, feels as fresh as spring. Director Kate Murray at Cider Mill Stage has found new aspects of the legendary diva’s personality to explore while retaining the play’s essential message.

From the moment she enters a classroom at Juilliard to teach aspiring singers in the “Lyric Tradition,” Gregori as Callas owns the stage, if not the planet. Her interactions with the audience, who represent students, are indicative of a lively if biting wit. Callas often refers to her sense of humor, and Gregori does an excellent job at revealing this sometimes-overlooked personality trait. Her physical attributes, from sweeping arm gestures to frequent disapproving moues, reflect the complexity of her inner self.

The point of the class, however, is to show students that “it’s only your work on stage that matters.”  The first “victim” is a blonde kewpie doll of a young woman, Sophie Depalma, portrayed with naïve enthusiasm by Jana Kučera. Callas stops Sophie’s aria on the first note; this opens the door for the first of many personal recollections about her stormy personal life and her single-minded pursuit of perfection as an artist.

It’s no coincidence that Callas calls Sophie “fat and ugly” because she herself was so labeled in her youth. Thus, a feeling of inadequacy fueled her desire to achieve success as a singer. She reminisces about triumphs at La Scala and proudly claims, “I have won again. I have no rivals.” However, the searing memory of the abuse she suffered at the hands of paramour Aristotle Onassis is uncomfortable to watch although necessary to depict as part of Callas’ backstory. Gregori performs these difficult scenes with brutality but throughout maintains our sympathy for Callas.

The second student, a splendidly gowned and bejeweled Sharon Graham, is artfully played by Michelle Kearley Thompson. She never sings a note due to an attack of nerves and is quickly followed by a stereotypical tenor, Anthony Candolino. (“Call me Tony” is his glib greeting.) Jarod Hinton gives this character enough depth to overcome its obnoxious, arrogant façade. Callas makes him understand that it is not sufficient to have a fine voice, which he does, but he needs the emotional groundwork for a role. She gently admonishes him to always “remember the springtime” as the prompt to mining a character’s emotional foundation.

Graham returns to the class, and Callas instructs her in “technique, discipline, and moot” (a German term she uses to express great emotion). Graham is the only student to challenge Callas for her caustic attitude that masks a fear of failure. Her taunt that “You want everybody to sing like you” doesn’t faze Callas in the least because “No one sings like me.”

In each of the student encounters, Callas reveals smore about herself and her past struggles: the “fat, ugly canary” who gained worldwide renown through laser-focused ambition; the need to both “dominate and collaborate,” and the final instruction to “listen to yourself as well as the music.”

The two minor characters of Manny Weinstock, played by accomplished pianist Sonny DeWitt, and Zach Curtis as the grumpy stagehand complete a well-balanced cast of actors.

Master Class examines what it means not only to be a talented performer but a true artist through the lens of a legendary diva’s life. Callas’ final words of advice, “You must decide for yourself in life and use what you learn wisely,” applies to more than just hitting the high notes in a famous aria.

IF YOU GO: BLAST’s production of Master Class, which opened Thursday (April 28), continues at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday (April 29-30) and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday (May 1) at the Cider Mill Stage, 2 Nanticoke Avenue, Endicott. Tickets at $25 may be obtained by visiting cidermillstage.com, calling 607-321-9630 or stopping at the box office.