Master Class
May 31-June 5 , 2005
Directed by Nina LeNoir
Scenic Design by George Grubb
Lighting Design by Steven Smith
Costume Design by Lisa Rae Windloss

Greta Grosch as Maria Callas introduces herself to her master class. Her accompanist Manny (John McKay) enjoys her theatricality.

Maria uses the thin skin of her first student, Sophie (Christina Dyrland Smith) to teach a lesson.

Student Tony (Bryan Maus) comes in with more confidence.

After running scared at first, Sharon (Elizabeth Eden) returns to impress.

When the class is finished, Maria realizes that teaching may not be for her.

Directing a diva
LeNoir directs Marie Callas play

By Amanda Dyslin
Mankato Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO—Nina LeNoir isn’t big into opera. But when she signed on to direct “Master Class” to kick off the Highland Summer Theatre season Tuesday, she became enthralled with one of opera’s most intriguing stars.

“There are 60 biographies of this woman. She has been, for many people, a person of fascination,” LeNoir said. “She, of course, was the biggest opera star of the 20th century. To learn all of this about someone I had (only) heard of, has been just fascinating.”

Maria Callas, born in 1923 to Greek immigrant parents in New York, is considered one of the most versatile operatic singers in recent history. She sang in a variety of ranges, from high soprano to mezzo. Callas had a distinctive vocal timbre and was a renowned actress, performing in operas even after contracting a throat disease that deteriorated her voice. She died of heart failure in 1977.

Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” a reflection of the nature of Callas’ art and reckless personality, takes place on a simple stage around a piano. Callas — a glamorous, forceful and hilarious prima donna — is teaching a master class in front of an audience but stops the first student from singing when Callas recognizes an aria she, herself, made famous. The class shifts to a platform for Callas who relives the glories of her career and seduces the audience, despite having lost her vocal abilities.

“The only time (in the play) she gets so carried away she starts to sing, it’s kind of a mess,” said Greta Grosch, a 1989 MSU Theatre alumna and Highland veteran playing Callas. “She was really reckless. She sang with abandon. ... When this play takes place, Maria’s voice is shot.”
For the past several months LeNoir dove into research, watching and reading biographies of Callas, as well as myriad articles. She became enchanted by Callas’ personal life as much as her talent.

“She had two personalities. There was Maria, who was the more human, simpler one — the person who really was insecure and who cared very much what people thought of her,” LeNoir said. “Then there was Callas, who was the diva, who stepped on everyone, who could care less what people thought of her.”

After learning so much about Callas and her complex leading role in “Master Class,” LeNoir decided Grosch would be perfect for the part. Grosch specializes in comedy, but easily taps into her dramatic acting abilities. She has a commanding stage presence akin to Callas, LeNoir said.
“She’s one of the funniest actors I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I have mostly seen her in comedic roles and wanted to work with her in a dramatic role. I thought, ‘If she’s interested in doing it, this could be amazing.’”

Grosch, a professional Twin Cities actress who has appeared in Subway, Best Buy and Timber Lodge Steakhouse commercials, accepted the challenge.

“It’s just really great as an actor to get to go and stretch yourself,” Grosch said.

LeNoir worked with Grosch on “Jerry’s Girls” several years ago and said she will enjoy collaborating with her again to bring out both the diva and human side of Callas.

“It really is her show,” LeNoir said. “So much of it will be dependent on her interpretation of the role.”

The play begins with the lights on and Callas coming on stage. The audience applause is curtly interrupted with, “Oh no! No applause. We are here to work.”

“(The audience) will see something truly special. I think Greta will do an amazing job,” LeNoir said. “There’s just something about Maria Callas.”