Review: Masterful Sandra Prinsloo – intoxicating mélange of theatre and opera in Terrence McNally Master Class – pitch perfect direction and performance

Master Class by Terrence McNally

Presented by Pieter Toerien and Cape Town Opera
Director: Magdalene Minnaar
Musical direction: José Dias
Cast: Sandra Prinsloo (in the role of Maria Callas) and CTO singers- Brittany Smith (Siphamandla Moyake for Joburg), Alida Scheepers and Tylor Lamani as the aspiring opera singers mentored by Callas. José Dias is piano accompanist and takes on the role as Manny. In Joburg, Kurt Haupt will play the role of actor/accompanist. Fundiswa Mrali takes on the role of stage hand and she is the stage manager for the production
Costume design: Maritha Visag
Lighting design: Magdalene Minnaar

Where and when:

Theatre on the Bay, Cape Town – February 20 to March 11, 2023
Pieter Toerien’s Theatre at Montecasino, Johannesburg -March 15 to April 2, 2023

Tickets: R180 to R280
Bookings: Webtickets
Age restriction: No under 13s

Sandra Prinsloo is masterful in Master Class, the 1995 play by the multi-award winning Terrence McNally, which celebrates the legacy of opera legend, soprano Maria Callas. The play is a tribute to her life, work and her passion to pass on the baton of knowledge; her belief in mentorship and skills transfer. Prinsloo shares the stage with three extraordinary stars from Cape Town opera, pianist José Dias as the accompanist and Fundiswa Mrali as the stage-hand (she is the stage manager of the production- and brings in fun vibe as she services the demands of Callas).

This production is being presented by Cape Town Opera in association with Pieter Toerien Productions, to coincide with what would have been the 100th birthday of Callas.  The director is Magdalene Minnaar, artistic director of Cape Town Opera. Master Class is a dazzling production: Celebratory, quirky, whimsical and hugely inspirational. It is innovative in the blending of the theatrical and operatic: Essential viewing, not only for those who are fans of Sandra Prinsloo, one of South Africa’s greatest stage actors (she is beyond awesome) and opera fans (the opera material is magical) but is vital viewing for those who are intent on pursuing a career/calling in the arts. Key to this play is the quest to make art and why art matters. Callas (played by Prinsloo) reflects: “Choosing the path of art… what we do matters”. It is not an easy journey: “Art is domination and collaboration.” And consider this, when she says: “Sing properly and wisely”.

This play evokes the life of Callas, framed as a master class in which she put aspiring singers through their paces, in front of an audience. In writing the play, McNally, was inspired by master classes that Callas led in 1971, at the Juilliard School in New York. At that time, she has not sung publicly for six years. She was alone and as always the subject of gossip. She was a mega celebrity. If she was alive today, one can imagine, that she would have millions of followers on TikTok and Instagram.  McNally (who died in March 2020 of Covid complications) said that the play was not meant to be a docu-drama. His play is a fictional imagining of Callas with students. I have not seen this play staged previously so I do not have other productions to compare. I can say that I was dazzled by Prinsloo who has gone beyond transformation as she has embedded herself in the persona of Maria Callas – in designer suit, handbag and sensible but smart shoes (brilliant costume choices by Rabia Davids in dressing Callas). If Prinsloo was in an identity line-up, I would not be able to pick her out. She has shed Sandra Prinsloo and IS Maria Callas. Well, her blue eyes are recognisable but that is it. This is a tour de force performance.

Brittany Smith, Alida Scheepers and Tylor Lamani (there are some cast changes for the run in Johannesburg) are anxious, feisty and spirited in their interaction with the famous Callas, as they make their way through arias by Verdi, Puccini and Bellini. They are conscious of the fact that there is an audience watching and so is Callas as she plays with and to the audience. Plot spoiler alert: Callas starts by admonishing members of the audience for not having a “look”. It is important to project an image, she tells us. In her interaction with the students, Callas shares insights into her life; overcoming extreme poverty and deprivation; achieving her “look; becoming glam and thin but most importantly her quest for her craft and the impotence of making art and finding beauty- no matter the obstacles- personal anguish (her volatile relationship with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. She left her husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini, for Onassis). The students in Master Class, the play, are not docile. Plot spoiler: Brittany Smith as Sharon Graham, retorts that she is not going to strain her voice and make wrong choices and accuses Callas of doing just that. It makes for invigorating viewing. The crescendo is in Act 2, with the face-off between Smith and Callas. The fiery interchange pinged for me in relation to watching the real-life master class in Cape Town, on March 3, 2020, in the Baxter Concert Hall, when New Zealand soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, led a masterclass with emerging opera soloists. We went into Covid hard lockdown in South Africa on March 26, 2020, so that was just before live performance shut down. Brittany Smith was one of the participants- part of the cohort of three in the master class. She was visibly nervous, fanning herself as she absorbed the Dame’s feedback but at the same time she was determined to relay her thoughts. One can imagine how daunting that must have been, on stage with a living legend with an audience watching. The Dame did not make cutting remarks about the dress and appearance of the cohort as Callas does in the play Master Class. She drove the artits to try out different phasing. She grilled them, asked them questions about what they were singing, what it meant to them and then got them repeatedly sing, until, she was happy with the result and she felt that she got them to bring nuances to the material that they were presenting for her. They were good, even great but she wanted them to master the material and extend, beyond “good”. It was thrilling to watch the process.

In her rendition of the character, Sharon Graham, a prosaic name for a singer who is extraordinary (which Smith is) in Master Class, Smith imbues her with the grittiness of a young artist who is not flayed by the enormity of dealing with a legend. After watching the show, at Theatre on the Bay, I chatted to Smith and asked her if she drew from that real life master class with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, in fleshing out Sharon Graham. She replied that she did use that experience from that seminal master class, on the cusp of the pandemic and yes she remembered how she was on that stage, under in the limelight, sharing the stage with a living legend. Smith duelling with Maria Callas – a fictional manifestation of a legend passed on – is magnificent – in voice and performance. Sandra Prinsloo is superlative and I am running out of words of praise.  

I asked director, Magdalene Minnaar about the casting approach to Master Class and she told me that it is usually cast with actors who can sing but they have cast it with singers who can act. Yes, they sure can act and sing.

In the play, Master Class, Callas muses that there are always entrances and exits but ultimately art is about transitions – and nailing those transitions. With this production, Minnaar in the director’s seat has nailed the transitions – interactions with the characters, inclusion of archival footage (AV – audio visual beamed onto a screen) and transitions as we hear about the life of Callas. For me the play and production is emblematic of the resilience of Cape Town Opera- its innovation (staging classical opera, off-beat opera, new operas), its mentorship and skills development and its vision in mentoring singers – often from under resourced communities- with excellence in production values- at all times – voice and performative aspects, staging.

Master Class is a sophisticated, visually beautiful production; entertaining and insightful into making art, finding beauty and is a wonderful tribute and celebration of the legendary Maria Callas- rendered by luminary Sandra Prinsloo and young opera stars from Cape Town Opera. Master Class is a master class – pitch perfect direction and performance of theatre and opera.

Collaboration in making art: Tylor Lamani as Antonio, with Sandra Prinsloo as Maria Callas. Pic by Joan Ward. Supplied
Star presence: Brittany Smith as the feisty Sharon Graham in Master Class. Pic: Joan Ward. Supplied.

✳Featured image of Sandra Prinsloo, by Annène van Eeden.