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As Joan Crawford in the movie "Mommie Dearest," Faye Dunaway raised a coat hanger in order to get her way. As Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning play "Master Class," Dunaway only has to raise her voice to an apprentice singer, and the nervous young vocalist is reduced to tears. Call her Diva Dearest.

A star vehicle that suits the ultra-thin and still-beautiful Dunaway as well as the elegant black pantsuit she wears with such flair, "Master Class" also suits the Lyric Opera House. This grand-opera-scale venue makes it all the more appropriate for Dunaway's Callas to stand under the proscenium arch and proclaim: "Never miss an opportunity to theatricalize."

Thank goodness she can hold our attention on stage, because McNally's play has a lot more style than story. Providing a synopsis of the plot nearly amounts to relating the whole thing. Her voice shot and her singing career over, Callas is giving a master class. Assisted by a pianist, she listens to three aspiring singers. Or, rather, they listen to her as she faults their clothing, singing, acting and very being. Callas also reminisces about her stormy career and equally volatile love affairs with the likes of Aristotle Onassis.

As he wittily proved in such plays as "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and the operatically themed "The Lisbon Traviata," McNally knows how to write snappy dialogue that can make you wince and laugh at the same time. Opera buffs in particular will love the snide insider remarks McNally gives to Callas as she comments on her professional contemporaries. Whether through hard practice or natural temperament, Faye Dunaway has no difficulty with these catty lines. And she delivers them with a Greek accent, too.

Her performance does suffer by comparison with that of the role's originator, Zoe Caldwell, who won a Tony Award for her brilliant interpretation. Although Dunaway is admirably self-assured in the role and bears a resemblance to the svelte Callas of later years, her straightforward take on the part doesn't take us far enough into the diva's melodramatic mind.

Caldwell had a more regal stage presence, more nuanced line readings, more ferocity when putting down other characters, more vulgar energy when she imitated Onassis, more imposing body language as she vamped around stage -- in short, more everything.

The supporting actors are exactly that in a star showcase such as "Master Class," but their secondary status doesn't diminish their importance. There is much humor and more than a little pathos as each singer faces Callas.

Sophie (Melinda Klump) is a plump vision in a pink party dress who barely gets to sing a note before Callas starts telling her she needs to overhaul her image. Sharon (Suzan Hanson) wears an emerald green gown and sings just as brightly; she and Callas have a tense battle of wills. Tony (Kevin Paul Anderson) is an arrogantly handsome tenor whose hero is Mario Lanza; his powerful singing wins rare praise from the diva.

Incidentally, Dunaway's Callas herself only half-sings a few lines and otherwise talks her way through the coaching sessions. This approach is true to the script and, besides, nobody goes to see the star of "Bonnie and Clyde" expecting a Verdi opera.

Musical mention also should be made of the talented on-stage pianist, Manny (Gary Green), who subtly conveys the deferential manners required when you're employed by Maria Callas. Green's mastery of this part furthers the impression that we're watching an actual master class.

'Master Class'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; 7: 30 p.m. Sunday; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $19-$49

Call: 410-494-2712

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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