On its surface, Terrence McNally‘s 1995 Tony Award-winning play, Master Class, now playing at Theatre Raleigh, is a fictionalized version of one of the master classes that world-famous operatic diva Maria Callas gave at the Juilliard School in New York City in late 1971 and early 1972. These were major events because Callas had essentially stopped singing in public by mid-1965. Although the classes were meant to be about her coaching of young singers and not about Callas herself, they were attended by sold-out audiences hoping not only to glean artistic insights from her but also to experience her legendary temperament and possibly hear her sing a little.

Merely recreating what that was like would have been entertaining enough, but McNally uses the class as a trigger for Callas’ flashbacks about her life and career. As she works with each of three singers on arias from operas that figured in her huge successes, she reflects on her rise to international stardom in the 1950s as well as her loveless first marriage and her disastrous decade-long affair with Aristotle Onassis.

McNally sets a daunting task for any actress taking on the role. Not only must she have a certain resemblance to Callas physically and personality-wise but she must also be able to sustain what is nearly a one-woman show for two hours over two acts. In addition, the actress must be comfortable enunciating a fair number of Italian lyrics from the arias she is coaching.

Judy McLane made a strong showing in all these aspects as Callas in Theatre Raleigh’s production, easily predicted from her lauded performances in the company’s Light in the Piazza and Lombardi in previous seasons.

Callas strides around imperiously while admonishing audience members about hard work and serious purpose, then eagerly recounts her battles with opera house managers. McLane found the right balance between Callas’ false modesty and true selflessness as well as the diva’s pointed jokes about colleagues and her unintentionally humorous reactions to the class participants’ gaffes. She confidently corrected their Italian pronunciation and easily dramatized the text of several arias.

McLane adroitly shifted back and forth from Callas to Onassis as they conversed in several flashbacks; her Onassis, crude and foul-mouthed, contrasted with Callas’ unusually girlish and dewy-eyed responses to her long-time lover. On opening night, McLane seemed somewhat restrained in her final flashback, in which Callas desperately tries to keep Onassis from abandoning her for Jackie Kennedy. The monologue should be the show’s devastating climax but lacked impact here.

The script provides a lot of humor in the interactions between Callas and the three singers. Alana Sealy‘s Sophie, a timorous, unprepared soprano, gained audience sympathies under Callas’ withering exhortations about getting into character, repeatedly interrupting her attempts to get through just the first few phrases of an aria from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Jason Karn‘s Tony, an overly-confident tenor with talent, got laughs for standing up to Callas’ provocations in attempting an aria from Puccini’s Tosca, exhibiting a robust voice that can hit all the notes. Juliana Valente gave soprano Sharon admirable feistiness as she rebuffed Callas’ bullying about her interpretation of an aria from Verdi’s Macbeth.

Tom Beard, a professional pianist and music director, brought a quiet humor to Manny, the accompanist for the signers, suffering Callas’ occasional barbs because he knows he’s in the presence of genius. Liam Yates amused as the stagehand who doesn’t know or care about Callas’ fame as he grudgingly complies with her demands for a cushion, a footstool, and some water.

Director Ray Dooley, long-time actor with Chapel Hill’s PlayMakers Repertory Company, has paced the show tightly, varying the staging astutely on Chris Bernier’s pleasing set, representing a recital hall. Erich R. Keil’s lighting is appropriately bright for the actual class and properly shadowy for Callas’ flashbacks. Elisa Acevedo’s wig design and Sarah McCabe’s costuming give McLane the signature Callas flair.

For opera aficionados, there are a lot of intriguing insider references, along with telling analyses of the arias being sung. But anyone who has an appreciation for what it takes to sing and the training necessary should relate to the principles at work here, which are not limited just to opera.

Master Class continues through Sunday, August 19. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.

Note: There are scads of Callas master class recordings in YouTube. For a sample of the diva herself in action, start here.