It's time for the classical music world to take some lessons from pop. Why, for example, have there never been rumors, as there have been about Elvis, that Maria Callas really isn't dead? As far as I'm concerned, she's alive and well in the person of Zoe Caldwell.
Caldwell plays Callas in Terrence McNally's "Master Class," which was inspired by the voice classes the soprano gave at Juilliard.
Theoretically, in a master class a great artist passes on the wisdom of a lifetime to a new generation. Often, however, the instruction is negligible. The class becomes a pretext for the artist to pretend to doff the mask he or she has worn in public all these years and for the audience to pay homage.
"Master Class" is very much an act of homage on the part of both Caldwell and McNally to Callas, whose brief career changed the face of opera. Before Callas, opera was a social event. For Callas it was as visceral as bullfighting. Her singing put you in touch with all the darkness you tried to shut out of your life.
Toward the end of the first act, McNally has a brilliantly theatrical idea: In the background we hear Callas singing Bellini; Caldwell, alone on stage, gives us a harrowing monologue about her relationship with the brutal Aristotle Onassis. As the scene builds, it is impossible to separate the two women, and you're convinced it is Caldwell who sang the wrenching aria.
In the course of the play Callas "teaches" three students. One soprano barely gets to open her mouth. Another is terrorized. After intimidating a cocky tenor, Callas simply listens to him sing; she never realized how beautiful his aria was, because all those years she was too busy backstage preparing for her own entrance.
Callas lectures us on entrances, on the necessity of having a "look." She is by turns caustic, coquettish, imperious, witty and, in her reminiscences, deeply moving.
"A performance is a struggle," she tells us. "You have to win. The audience is the enemy we have to bring them to their knees." It takes Caldwell about 10 seconds to vanquish us after she strides onstage, and for nearly three hours she has her way with us. Most of the time she seduces us with humor. Sometimes we laugh at Callas' wit, sometimes at her pettiness. A second later we are stunned by her seriousness about art or her life.
As every recorded note she sang reminds us, Callas was pure theater, and Caldwell's evocation of her is an absolute triumph. She is ably supported by Karen Kay Cody, Jay Hunter Morris and Audra McDonald as the students, Michael Friel as a bumbling stagehand and David Loud as the very capable accompanist.
The production is wittily designed, hauntingly lit and impeccably directed.
Viva Caldwell! Viva McNally! Callas Lives!
In September 1952, an Irish tenor, the splendid James Johnson, singing Manrico to Maria Callas' Leonora in "Il Trovatore," miffed with the tempestuous diva during a Covent Garden rehearsal muttered audibly and angrily to her, in his usually sweet Irish brogue: "You're not the only dramatic soprano in the world, you know."
But she was. When the conductor Maestro Tullio Serafin was asked: "Why is Maria Callas more famous than all other operatic artists of the day?" he replied, with irrefutable simplicity: "Because she is Maria Callas."
Of course, eventually Callas the singer became Callas the legend - in the minds of some opera freaks a sort of divine mixture of Judy Garland and Maria Montez tragically mixing it up from her celestial heights with the likes of Joan Sutherland and Aristotle Onassis.
It is Terrence McNally's total triumph in his "Master Class," which opened last night at the John Golden Theater, to give us some idea of both of those luminous Callases - the artist and the legend, the lady and the tiger. And, of course, he has been lucky, or savvy enough to find in Zoe Caldwell the perfect actress to make his Callas live, breathe, infuriate and enchant.
Born in Manhattan of Greek parentage, Callas graduated from Manhattan's P.S. 189 nearly 60 years ago singing a little Gilbert and Sullivan at her graduation ceremony (some New York debut!), but she spent the war years in Greece, and during the subsequent Greek civil war suffered under much-remembered privation.
McNally and Caldwell show us Callas toward the end of a career that blazed through international opera, dominating that world between 1951 and 1962.
But it is now 1971 - she is 47-years-old, and has been retired from the operatic stage for six years. Her former, much-publicized lover Onassis has deserted her to marry Jacqueline Kennedy, leading her sometimes to brood on her celebrated dramatic role Medea, both in Cherubini's opera and Pasolini's film.
She fears she has sung in public for the last time - in fact, she will make one last unsuccessful concert tour in three years time, and will die three years after that - and when we, McNally and Caldwell pick her up, she is giving public master classes at the Juilliard School in New York.
And this, and this almost alone, is McNally's "Master Class." It is not so much a play, for it has no real shape or structure, as a dramatic portrait and a musing on what Puccini's Tosca called a life lived for art and love - "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore."
She is dressed in a black Chanel pantsuit with a Hermes scarf just as she was 24 years ago, although the set designer Michael McGarty seems to have transposed the setting from Juilliard to Carnegie Hall. No matter. Callas/Caldwell strides on and, as was her wont, admonishes us: "No applause. This is a class not a performance."
Of course, this is a performance, with a capital P! McNally has heightened reality into art, and Caldwell has refined art back into reality, while the director, Leonard Foglia, has helped move it onto the stage. This is the platonic essence of Callas, her life, soul and, of course, her master classes. It is Callas plain, warts and all - complete even with bitchiness and insecurities.
She teaches her "pupils," Karen Kay Cody, Jay Hunter Morris, and the absolutely astonishing Audra McDonald (a terrific singer and actress giving, albeit briefly, Caldwell a run for her money every bloodstained inch of the way) about the importance of the "look," and artistic discipline and research, echoes Diaghilev in his plea to Cocteau to "Astonish Us!" and passes on careful hints such as: "Never move on your applause - it shortens it."
This is opera. This is theater. This is, to quote McNally's Callas: "The real world - brutal expression, brutal place." This is a night to remember.
Zoe Caldwell has played a number of strong, often doomed women, from Cleopatra and Medea to Jean Brodie, Emma Hamilton and Lillian Hellman. Yet she has probably never played a strong, doomed woman who is as zestfully entertaining as the Maria Callas that Terrence McNally has imagined in "Master Class," which opened last night at the Golden Theater.
For Ms. Caldwell, the role of the preeminent diva of the second half of this century allows her to give what could be one of the funniest, most moving and gaudiest performances of this season and, perhaps, of her career. For Mr. McNally, the play demonstrates his ability to create rich, vivid, satisfying theater from material that sounds as if it should be no more than a sketch.
His conceit: on a night during those impatient years between the time she stopped performing in opera in 1965 and her death in 1977, Callas conducted this particular master class for aspiring artists. (In fact she did give a series of 12 master classes at the Juilliard School in 1971, but "Master Class" is not meant to be clinically exact in such details. Like Callas, it's informed and distracted by emotion.)
The place and the time of the play are unspecified. The entire piece is set in a concert hall, with the audience at the Golden Theater sitting in for the would-be opera stars, their teachers and everyone else who has come to watch Callas. You can believe that she arrived in town that afternoon and will be taking off in the morning. Long since abandoned by the love of her life, her voice also gone, she now flies between one nowhere and the next.
Though she travels alone, she's not unencumbered. Her luggage is packed with the detritus of her fractured private life and her brilliant if short career. She's proud, arrogant and imperial of manner. She's no freak of nature, but a woman of determination, someone who worked ferociously to achieve her status as one of opera's greatest singing actresses. During that process she also transformed herself from an overweight hopeful into a superstar, a woman of model-thin chic and what she calls her own "look."
Recognition brought acclaim, a life of luxury, couture clothes and jewels. Yet with all the glamour that attended success there also was -- dare I whisper it? -- heartbreak.
Mr. McNally's achievement has been to take the legendary Callas, the somewhat camp Judy Garland figure of grand opera, and restore to the woman a sense of her passion and intelligence and the singularity of her gifts.
From the moment Ms. Caldwell comes onstage, there's no mistaking that she is Callas, though she does nothing extreme to modify her own somewhat smaller features. She uses some eye makeup and a slight accent, but that's all. This is not so much an impersonation as a full-bodied characterization. The actress's mind and body are at the service of Mr. McNally's text, in which the volatile Callas dominates, cajoles, lectures, insults and often becomes sidetracked.
On her entrance she asks the audience if she can be heard, but she doesn't want an answer. She certainly doesn't believe in microphones. Singing and speech, she says, are all about projection, which prompts one of her first lessons: "People are forgetting how to listen. If you can't hear me, it's your fault. You're not concentrating."
Concentration and commitment are what she is ready to devote to the evening's three aspirants: Sophie (Karen Kay Cody), a sweet, pudding-faced young soprano who announces tentatively, "I'm very fiery"; Tony (Jay Hunter Morris) a handsome young tenor with a big ego, and Sharon (Audra McDonald), another soprano, a statuesque beauty who makes the mistake of coming onstage in a gorgeous ball gown. Says the appalled Callas, wearing what looks to be a very expensive black pants suit and brightly colored silk scarf, "Don't wear anything like that before midnight at the earliest, and certainly not to class."
Also participating are Manny (David Loud), the accompanist, a man who remains politely impassive throughout, though he's not a passive character, and a stagehand (Michael Friel), a big, beefy fellow, the only person in the play to remain unaffected by the demands of this diva.
Mr. McNally doesn't disappoint the audience by hiding the Callas bitchiness. She won't hear a word spoken against any of her rivals, and notes that rivals was a word used by the newspapers. "How can you have rivals," she asks with utmost reason, "when no one can do what you can do?" She describes Joan Sutherland as "a 12-foot Lucia di Lammermoor" who made the best of a bad situation: "What was she to do? Stoop her way through the role?"
Her asides about Scotto, Tebaldi, Sills and Milanov are hilarious, but they're only the comic relief in a play more seriously concerned with the artist, her art and her life. This Callas is self-dramatizing in dealing with her three students, but also merciless in her impatience with the second-rate.
She so badgers poor Sophie that their session is almost over before the young woman can get beyond the "O" at the start of her aria from "La Sonnambula." She dismisses Tony for his ignorance and cheek, only to have him straighten up and perform his "Tosca" selection with such a purity of feeling that she's suddenly overcome. She says that she has never really listened to it before. She intimidates Sharon to the point that the younger woman has to leave the stage to throw up. Yet when she returns to sing the letter aria from "Macbeth," Callas circles the student to encourage, edit and coach her, as if to instill some measure of her own greatness.
The heart of the production, elegantly directed by Leonard Foglia, is revealed in two marvelous scenes in which Callas, as she listens to a student, is enveloped by the memories of her own appearances singing the same role. In the first, with the help of projected images, the interior of the Golden Theater becomes La Scala. Ms. Caldwell's Callas, backed by the real Callas's voice, recalls her own triumph and the chaos of her private life with Aristotle Onassis. As Mr. McNally has written these lines, the Greek multimillionaire is so rudely and viciously recollected that he virtually becomes an onstage character.
Ms. Caldwell is very much the star of "Master Class," but she's surrounded by fine supporting actors who, in the cases of Ms. McDonald (a Tony winner for her performance as Carrie in "Carousel"), Ms. Cody and Mr. Morris, are also accomplished singers. Note, too, the performance by Mr. Loud (the music director of the current "Company" revival), who manages to be very funny as, with little change of expression, he plays the piano and remains unsurprised by the periodic explosions of ego around him.
For all of its gossipy tidbits, "Master Class" is an unembarrassed, involving meditation on Callas's life and the nature of her art. Such subjects are not easily dramatized, certainly not with this brio.
Concentrate on Zoe Caldwell, in a demure black Chanel suit that draws every bit of light in the theater to its owner, and easily enter a world of mythic temperaments, quicksilver emotional turnabouts and imperious pronouncements about art, love and learning. This is the world of Terrence McNally's "Master Class," a real-time encounter with prima donna assoluta Maria Callas that finds one of our greatest stage actresses in a performance of controlled yet volcanic power. The setting is a small formal auditorium not unlike the Carnegie Recital Hall. Pristine white plaster columns and moldings and a blond wood floor set off a baby grand piano and a discreet little rostrum. A pair of doors at the rear fly open for Callas' calculatedly dramatic entrance -- could it be otherwise? -- where she is to critique a select group of student singers before an invited audience (which is, of course, us).
Before the class gets under way, there's some banter that immediately signals the beginning of the roller-coaster ride we have embarked upon. "We're going to roll up our sleeves and work," Callas announces. "You must be willing to subjugate yourself -- is that a word? -- subjugate yourself to the music."
First, however, you must be willing to subjugate yourself to La Divina: "Don't take this personally, but you don't have a look," she says to someone in the theater. "Get one. As quickly as possible." (Clearly, we have diverged somewhat from the master classes Callas held at Juilliard in 1971 and '72 from which McNally has taken his inspiration.)
"Bring on the first victim!" she says, and victim is exactly what poor Sophie (Karen Kay Cody) proves to be. A giggly vision in golden curls and flouncy pink chiffon, Sophie expels exactly one note of the aria she has chosen from "La Sonnambula" before Callas is all over her, demanding better enunciation.
Then Callas sing-speaks her way movingly through the aria, about a woman convinced she will never again see her beloved. Callas drifts off in a reverie that takes her back to her final triumph at La Scala -- a transformation exquisitely realized by set designer Michael McGarty by the simplest of means -- and her rough-and-tumble liaison with the proudly crude shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.
"They said they didn't like my sound," she says after being fired, isolated now onstage in a mythic golden aura. "That wasn't it. They didn't like my soul."
Soul is what Callas the teacher is looking for as she cajoles, insults, prods and urges these untested young artists to dig deeper than they have ever dug before -- deeper than most are capable of digging. Two other students, Tony (Jay Hunter Morris), a tenor, and Sharon (Audra McDonald), another soprano, actually do get to sing their arias.
It is in McDonald's appearance, working through the letter scene from "Macbeth," that "Master Class" builds to its most dramatic moments. Nervous to the point of illness, Sharon watches, transfixed -- we all do -- as Callas teaches her how to make an entrance.
Realizing that this is a student with rare spirit, Callas then rides Sharon through the aria, a jockey on a thoroughbred, offering a few moments of exhilaration -- before cutting her ruthlessly to the quick.
Well, art, as Stephen Sondheim said, isn't easy. Faced with Sharon's teary outrage, Callas can only wonder whether the whole business of teaching isn't a mistake, before declaring, quite earnestly, "I'm certain what we do matters." As a coda to an evening spent with a hypnotic personality as played by a no less hypnotic actress, that's fine. But as the summation of a play, it's a bit of a letdown. We have not come very far, regardless of the pleasure we have had in getting there.
The central figure in McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!" was a dancer-choreographer coming to grips with a failing body and a creative block. "Master Class" again finds the playwright struggling to create something artful about the making of art -- a goal that seems more of a critic's dilemma than an artist's.
In "Master Class," what you see is literally what you get. A few pronouncements about the importance of art and artists never lift this facsimile of a real event into the realm of art itself.
Theatergoers not versed in the arcana of opera may find "Master Class" slow going, and those expecting revelation on the order of "Sunday in the Park With George" will almost surely leave unsatisfied.
But "Master Class" doesn't need to appeal to a mass audience. This magnificent production is in exactly the right place -- a welcoming, intimate Broadway house -- under exactly the right circumstances -- with the relatively low running costs and ticket price provided under the Broadway Alliance aegis.
It offers a performance of leonine grandeur from Caldwell, full of dazzling highs and lows, purrs and hisses, bravura pronouncements and quiet wound-licking as she reviews a life of accomplishment and pain. In the end, Callas' bywords are domination, collaboration and, unembarrassedly, assets!
The star is perfectly matched by Cody, Morris and, especially, McDonald (a Tony winner for her Carrie in "Carousel"). Those factors should all work to make "Master Class" the Broadway Alliance's first true hit. It is certainly an unqualified triumph for Zoe Caldwell.