Deb Note-Farwell Amazes as Maria Callas

put-master-class-logoPopUp Theatre’s “Master Class” is in a class by itself!

Reviewed by Tom Jones, October 22, 2016

Deb Note-Farwell has long-been one of Colorado’s most talented performers. This season she has outdone herself. She not only plays a role, but becomes opera diva Maria Callas on a tiny Fort Collins stage. The actress has completely moved her own persona out of the way in the performance of a lifetime.

Born in New York City, Callas moved with her mother and sister to Greece where she received her musical training. She became a European legend in the opera world – as a performer, and as fodder for gossip. She was a pudgy child who always felt her mother liked her sister better. Sounds like a scene from Grimm’s fairy tales. Her voice eventually outgrew her physique, and she enthralled audiences in the most famous opera venues in the world: La Scala in Milan, Rome Opera House, and New York Metropolitan Opera. At one point, she was referred to as virtually “divine.”

While she was amazing audiences with her vocal range, her personal life was in constant turmoil. She riled against directors and managers, belittled her peers, and became a virtual tyrant. She was involved om s a tumultuous relationship with shipping magnate Ari Onassis. When on stage she was nearly blind. Then her voice began to fade, and few were eager to help her. She died at age 53.

Photo credit: Christopher Huelshorst     Photo of Deb Note-Farwell
Photo credit: Christopher Huelshorst Photo of Deb Note-Farwell

Deb Note-Farwell’s Callas stalks the stage as a wild animal, voice booming, having little tolerance for the imperfections in others. In “Master Class” Callas’ operatic career has ended, and she is teaching a Masters Class at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City in the 1970s. In the play, she is tormenting the students, stopping them after only a sound or two have emerged from their mouths, telling them what they are doing wrong, and lapsing in memories of her own triumphs and defeats.

Written by acclaimed playwright Terrance McNally, the play opened in New York in 1995. It received both the 1996 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play and the Tony Award the same year for Best Play. Zoe Caldwell received the Tony Award that year for Best Actress in a Play, and Audra McDonalds received Featured Actress Award. The script is a tad annoying, as McNally dwells on Callas’ continual harassments of the students. This was evidently done to portray what a Diva, the magnificent Callas had become. The first 75 minutes of the play are a virtual monologue as Callas harangues the students and staff of the auditorium demanding water, a small stool, and a better cushion. Other characters in the play are given only a few lines of dialogue in the first act.

The second act, however, is spellbinding. Two of the students are allowed to perform brief operatic pieces. Zachary Winkler, a tenor, and Samantha Jo Staggs as “The Second Soprano” are both excellent. Especially Staggs as Sharon, as she had the audacity to question Callas’ torment. Winkler and Staggs have remarkable voices. Jordan Ortman is Manny, the class accompanist. He is very good, but has minimal to say. It would be great to see him in an actual concert on his own. Mary Hanna Keith is believable as the first soprano who doesn’t have “the look” Callas indicates is required of a great performer. Dasha Ann is also very good as the Stage Manager, trying to placate Callas angry requirements.

Photo credit: Christopher Huelshorst     Photo of Deb Note-Farwell and Samantha Jo Staggs
Photo credit: Christopher Huelshorst Photo of Deb Note-Farwell and Samantha Jo Staggs

Directed by Christopher Huelshorst, a terrific cast has been assembled to display their talents with the audience on all sides. This is up-close and personal. At times I was discouraged, as I was not understanding everything Callas was ranting and raving about. My concerns were not with Note-Farwell’s performance. She was so into the part that the Callas-within-her speaks with a sometimes difficult-to-understand accent.

PopUp Theatre “popped up” in Fort Collins a year ago. It does not have a home, but Artistic Director Christopher Huelshorst notes that the shows pop up in unexpected places. This time it is in the center foyer of the Fort Collins Community Creative Center, 200 Matthews Street in Fort Collins. Next on their schedule is “Pride@Prejudice.” This is evidently not the traditional “Pride and
Prejudice,” but a” romantic deconstruction” — coming in January 2017.

“Master Class”
Where: PopUp Theatre
Fort Collins Community Creative Center
200 Matthews Street, Fort Collins: