‘Master Class’ by Terrence McNally – New York

In Master Class, with the emotionally stirring music of Verdi’s Macbeth, Maria Callas exhorts her student:

“Is there anything you would kill for, Sharon? … A man? A career?”

Playwright Terrence McNally cleverly weaves opera plots and music to mirror the myths of Callas, who reached the legendary status of a modern day Greek tragedy. McNally unleashes the human anguish of ambition and desires. His creation of Callas feeds the larger-than-life myth of one whose rise to the peak of Mount Olympus ended like the tale of Icarus. 

With a Cinderella story, Callas began her career, criticized as overweight and unattractive. She was married to Giovanni Battista Meneghini, 27 years her senior. Soaring above detractors and competitors, Callas rose to be heralded as one of the most beautiful, glamorous, talented opera stars in the world. She divorced her husband for the Greek tycoon, Aristotle Onassis, known as the wealthiest man in the world. But after their nine-year, internationally publicized and chronicled love affair, Onassis left Callas to marry Jacqueline Kennedy. Onassis died in 1975, and Callas died two years later from heart failure, characterized in popular legend as a “broken heart”.

The original production of Master Class won the 1996 Tony Award for Best Play, with Zoe Caldwell (Maria) and Audra McDonald (Sharon) receiving awards for acting. However, in this year’s Broadway revival at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Tyne Daly seems a bit miscast as Maria Callas. In a Playbill interview, Daly acknowledged that playing Callas was not a natural fit: “That was Terrence’s idea. It seemed entirely inappropriate to me. Have you noticed that I haven’t had a lot of glamour requirements in my career? Have you noticed I play blue collar a lot?”

In fiery monologues, Callas describes herself as a fat, ugly, greasy unknown with bad skin and thick glasses who transforms into a diamond-clad woman at the center of the universe. She recalls her opening night at La Scala:

“Yes, I dare to go to the greatest heights! My whole life has led up to this moment.”

“In less than one year, I’ve become the Queen of La Scala. That has to count for something. La Divina. Imagine being called La Divina. Listen to that! I’ve won, Battista, I’ve made something of myself!”

“This night and every night that I go out there and sing, when I sing, I’m not fat. I’m not ugly. I’m not an old man’s wife. I’m Callas. I’m La Divina. I’m everything I wanted to be.”

Daly creates instead of royalty a likable character who still comes off as a bit of a rough and tumble tomboy. She left me slightly puzzled by her presence in a flowing, black evening suit, narrating to an authentic Maria Callas soundtrack.

In a metatheatrical device, Callas establishes the audience is also the audience for the master classes in the play. She talks and jokes with those in the orchestra seats, reminding us how actors share live moments with their viewers at every theatre or opera performance. The experience underscores how Callas enjoyed winning over audiences, and acted out her real life for her fans.

Daly’s Callas establishes almost a comedienne-like rapport with the theatergoers. When the students come on stage, she puts them down with one-liners, and the audience laughs. They are on Daly’s side. However, this familiarity waters down some of the drama of La Divina.

She teaches sopranos, Sophie De Palma (Alexandra Silber) and Sharon Graham (Sierra Boggess), and tenor Tony Candolino (Garrett Sorenson). The concentrated emotional focal points occur when Callas alone drifts into flashbacks, remembering conversations with Onassis and with her first husband. Onassis comes off as a nasty, cruel brute with few redeeming or interesting qualities. He disparagingly calls Callas a canary, which she finds insulting. As played by Daly, Callas’s acceptance of Onassis’s vulgarity with loving responses seems as incongruous as Rosie O’Donnell voting Republican.

Daly’s strengths in commanding attention on stage do not fully shift to credible vulnerability, especially over a man. In her fall from the dizzying heights of Mount Olympus, McNally’s Callas is left in despair, on bended knees. Fragile, broken and broken-hearted, she begs Onassis:

“Don’t leave me! I’ve been alone all my life until now!”

“I’m losing my voice. Don’t you read the papers? I’m getting by on sheer nerve. I always did. That’s what’s going, not the voice. They fired me at La Scala. As if I cared? I have you. [She falls to her knees.] Marry me, Ari. Your canary is asking you to marry her.”

In addition to Macbeth, other operas in the lessons make references to Callas’s life. In Medea, this heroine sings to Jason, when he’s leaving her for a younger, important princess, “Ho dato tutto a te.” (I gave everything for you. Everything.)

The idea of the play is loosely based on master classes, which Callas held in the early 1970s. In the 1987 book, Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes, John Ardoin condensed transcripts of the actual sessions and provided interpretive text. The actual master classes were technical, precise and highly professional, without Callas berating or insulting any students. Callas discussed music that McNally used in his play, including La Sonnabula and “Recondita Armonia” from Tosca, but with a concise, no-nonsense clarity. Daly’s Callas presents a dynamic woman, providing for more philosophical inquiry, not found in the records of the classes.

In the play, Callas says although the world can and will go on without artists, she believes that artists leave the world a better place. Artists leave the world richer and wiser than had they not chosen their way of life. Yet, the audience understands that this is not without costs.

Daly effectively closes the final act with Callas’s actual words to her students, taken verbatim from Ardoin’s book epilogue, dated March 16, 1972. They come from the heart of one who cared deeply about her art and its impact upon the world.

“What matters is that you use whatever you have learned wisely. Think of the expression of the words, of good diction, and of your own deep feelings. The only thanks I ask is that you sing properly and honestly. If you do this, I will feel repaid.”