The set is bathed in sepia light and bare, save for a grand piano, a high-legged chair, a tall desk, and a music stand. The theater is hushed, the audience ready to begin, and then she enters: tall and regal, powerful in her black pantsuit and scarf that makes a statement all its own. She bears presence and utters a slew of words in her distinct accent, but the one statement that catches attention is: "No applause."
She is Maria Callas, the Greek diva played by Cherie Gil in Terrence McNally's Master Class, presented by the Philippine Opera Company.
The play, licensed by William Morris Agency, and directed by Michael Williams, revolves around Maria Callas, leading star of the international opera circuit in the 1950s. Because of her fame, she has earned a prestigious invitation to teach a master class at Julliard School of Music.
But what would one expect from a master class conducted by one of the most-admired opera singers of all time? Certainly not glimpses of her private life. Certainly not the flair and drama of a woman lost in the agony of her paramour. But this is what we see in the play: Maria Callas reincarnated in Cherie Gil as she imbibes the true role of a diva: an extremely detail-oriented, melodramatic, and brutally frank perfectionist.
The play is infused with Grecian dry humor, one that imitates Callas, and the theatrics of a diva spewing teacher's wisdom to aspiring artists. Although the play revolves around Callas and her students, Callas talks as if the audience is part of "her" master class, and her one-liners often allow the audience to participate in the master class by way of applause and feedback. More than once, she throws out her lines to the audience, and this adds to the feeling that the audience is indeed taking a peek at the life of the opera singer, or watching as she conducts her class.
Ceejay Javier plays Manny, her accompanying artist. Her students are: Florence Aguilar as Sophie de Palma, Deeda Barretto as Sharon Graham, and Jack Salud as Anthony Candolino.
Although humorous, the play's comedic tone shifts when Callas begins to talk about her ill-fated relationship with Aristotle "Ari" Onassis, a Greek shipping tycoon. It is during these moments of recollection that she shares some of her hard-earned wisdom with the audience and her students: "A performance is a struggle. You have to win."
Indeed, like her performances, Maria Callas' life was a struggle. To Cherie Gil, becoming Maria Callas was also part of her struggle, but she was able to portray that diva spirit with enough authenticity that truly makes her in a class of her own.
Master Class will run at the Carlos P. Romulo Theater, RCBC Plaza, Makati City on October 17, 18, 23, 24 and 25 at 8 pm. For tickets, call Philippine Opera Company at 892-8786 and TicketWorld at 891-9999 or log on to www.philippineoperacompany.com