"When you're fat and ugly, you had better have a couple of high F's you can interpolate into your life."
Such is the blunt advice delivered by the difficult and exacting Greek-American soprano Maria Callas to an audience of opera fans in Terrence McNally's 1995 play "Master Class," which is receiving an excellent revival from Manhattan Theatre Club starring Tyne Daly.
The play is based on a series of master classes that Callas - once the world's most prominent dramatic soprano - held at the Juilliard School in the early 1970s after her singing voice had weakened.
Callas spends much of the play dissecting, criticizing and reshaping the performances of three young opera singers - two of whom aspire to achieve her success, and another who finally reacts to her bullying by pointing out how Callas caused her own downfall.
At two points, she loses track of time and dips into memories of being an overlooked conservatory student, her marriage to an older man and then her affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
Even if the play is essentially a monologue mixed with some opera selections, it makes for a thrilling ride and is one of McNally's most compelling works.
The role of Callas was originated by Zoe Caldwell, who was then replaced by Patti LuPone.
Daly wears an extraordinary amount of makeup in order to resemble the real-life Callas - so much so that it functions rather like a mask that limits the expressive quality of her face.
But as directed by Stephen Wadsworth, Daly combines the character's tough exterior and emotional ferocity with pitch-perfect comedic timing, the theatricality of a diva, and apparent signs of insecurity and vulnerability.
Sierra Boggess ("The Little Mermaid"), Alexandra Silber and Garrett Sorenson make charismatic turns as Callas' brave students and offer impressive vocal renditions from several bel canto operas.
Manhattan Theatre Club has imported this production of "Master Class" from the Kennedy Center's 2010 tribute to playwright Terrence McNally, where it was a sizeable hit. Spruced up with some recasting and featuring an improved turn from star Tyne Daly, the show should repeat its D.C. success.
The simple setup, which has legendary opera singer Maria Callas conducting a class for music students, was suggested by Callas' experiences teaching in the early 1970s at Manhattan's Juilliard School. Retired from performing, she is intent upon passing on what she can to the next generation. As Callas pontificates, reminisces, intimidates, cajoles, and lectures both the students and the audience, McNally paints a fascinating character portrait while also examining the nature and purpose of art and those making it.
In D.C., Daly and director Stephen Wadsworth seemed to have decided to deemphasize the diva in Callas in favor of a more empathetic approach to the character. But after reading several interviews with Daly in which she says that because she lacks such qualities as Callas' glamour and hauteur ("Have you noticed I play blue-collar a lot?" the actor asked Playbill.com's Harry Haun), she resisted McNally's entreaties to do the role, it now seems that the star just needed time to find her footing. That she has done triumphantly, integrating a cutting edge into her performance without sacrificing a submerged warmth that makes Daly's Callas fascinatingly unique in the pantheon of memorable performances in the role by the likes of Faye Dunaway, Dixie Carter, Patti LuPone, and, of course, the Tony-winning and utterly sublime original, Zoe Caldwell. Daly is now working at the absolute top of her game, and it's inspiring to watch this superb actor stretching herself instead of playing it safe.
Carryovers from D.C. include Clinton Brandhagen's amusingly unimpressed stagehand and Jeremy Cohen's sweetly puppyish accompanist. Also back is the excellent Alexandra Silber as soprano Sophie De Palma, a young singer who hasn't counted on being required to act. Silber distills an enticingly original character out of Sophie's at first eager, then increasingly bewildered and desperate interactions with her teacher. When Sophie suddenly gets the approval she has given up on receiving, Silber's rendering of her not knowing what to do with it is touching and true.
New to the company are Metropolitan Opera tenor Garrett Sorenson, in his dramatic stage debut, as student Anthony Candolino, and Broadway and West End vet Sierra Boggess as student soprano Sharon Graham. Sorenson sings the hell out of an aria from "Tosca," but what's most impressive is his acting. He beautifully captures Tony's protective bravado, then is completely convincing when that bravado must instantly crumble, making Tony's plea to Callas to help him become a better singer quietly moving. Boggess is an intriguing choice for Sharon, a role created by a formidable Audra McDonald. You never believed Callas' pronouncement that McDonald's Sharon would not be up to the great diva roles such as Norma or Lady Macbeth. It made the star seem jealous and spiteful. The more self-effacing Boggess, who had to learn how to sing opera for the part, does a more than respectable job with Lady Macbeth's passionate letter aria, but Boggess makes it clear that the role is not in Sharon's persona. Thus Sharon's stinging denunciation of Callas' verdict, which Boggess handles with great skill, is instead a troubling example of the harsh truths necessary in the making of a great artist, and we admire the diva for having the guts to say it even as it saddens us.
Daly still seems occasionally uncomfortable in Wadsworth's rather effortful staging of McNally's two long interior monologues for Callas, in which her thoughts drift off to people and events in her past. But it's a minor quibble about a performance filled with invention and intelligence. Just watch what Daly does in her final moment on stage, which involves an orange. That's magic. Brava, diva!
Towering before us — and tower she does, though she is not particularly tall — the celebrated opera singer is undeniably, overwhelmingly there. And yet she’s not there at all. One of the most daunting presences you’re ever likely to come across is, on some profound level, absent. Which makes it all the more impossible for you to take your eyes off her.
This paradox is the magic trick at the center of Tyne Daly’s remarkable performance as Maria Callas in “Master Class,” Terrence McNally’s 1995 play about the twilight of that goddess of bel canto. In the production that opened Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Callas is supposedly in an auditorium at the Juilliard School in the early 1970s, where she is instructing students on the art of performing opera.
But Ms. Daly makes it clear that the awed young things who are trying so hard to hit notes and look heroic are for Callas colorless phantoms. So is the world they inhabit. This Callas lives in a more vivid time, in a moment both eternal and fleeting when the glory of her career matched the appetite of her ambition. That moment is still bright and hot inside her — it’s the only reality she completely acknowledges — and it turns everything else into shadows.
“Master Class” is not, by even a generous reckoning, a very good play, though it can be an entertaining one. Mr. McNally (whose earlier “Lisbon Traviata,” which took a more indirect look at Callas, is a very good play) is an opera buff who here mixed a passionate fan’s knowledge of myth, gossip and music into one pulpy, Broadway-ripe package. Yet Ms. Daly transforms that script into one of the most haunting portraits I’ve seen of life after stardom.
Best known for playing tough, earthy broads on television (“Cagney & Lacey”) and onstage (Momma Rose in “Gypsy”), the square-bodied Ms. Daly would not seem an obvious choice for the rarefied self-creation that was Callas. The elegant Zoe Caldwell, who originated the role (and won her fourth Tony Award for it), certainly looked more like the middle-aged Callas and probably behaved more like the public’s idea of that singer.
But let’s be honest: although Mr. McNally’s version of Maria Callas shares the résumé of the real star, she is a fabrication, a juiced-up composite of 20th-century divas. While he borrowed a few lines (including much of the final speech) from tapes of Callas sessions at Juilliard, he has also admitted to incorporating aspects of other stars, including Renata Scotto and Leontyne Price. This was probably necessary, as the real Callas was said to be a deeply boring conversationalist.
So it has hardly seemed blasphemy to have had the Callas of “Master Class” embodied over the years by actresses as different from their prototype (and from one another) as Patti LuPone, Faye Dunaway, Dixie Carter and Fanny Ardant. What the part requires is, above all, an understanding of the ego that both enables the stardom and stunts the lives of those who possess it.
In this Manhattan Theater Club production, directed by Stephen Wadsworth, the ego of Ms. Daly’s Callas is Olympian and it’s scary. She is not one of those irresistibly charming narcissists who pop up in affectionate satires of show folk like Kaufman and Ferber’s “Royal Family.” True, it looks as if she might be that way in the opening scene, when Callas addresses the audience with cozy condescension while taking digs at other famous sopranos.
Her early interactions with her pianist, Manny (Jeremy Cohen), and a stagehand (Clinton Brandhagen) are amusingly impatient and imperious. So, to some extent, are her sessions with the three students she (sort of) listens to and feels free to insult: two sopranos, Sophie De Palma (Alexandra Silber) and Sharon Graham (Sierra Boggess), and a tenor, Anthony Candolino (Garrett Sorenson).
Yet you sense that what’s happening around Callas is of little interest to her. The students, the songs they sing, even her own words matter only insofar as they prompt memories of what was (and for her still is and ever shall be). Even casually dropped names hook into her past, and her torn expressions show it.
When she relates the plot of Cherubini’s “Medea,” in which the title character is thrown over by a powerful man for a glamorous younger woman, you know that she’s thinking about her formidable lover, Aristotle Onassis, who left her for Jacqueline Kennedy. When she shows a student how a part should be acted, she is in her mind on the stage of La Scala or at Covent Garden, and we can feel the visceral excitement the music of Bellini or Verdi inspires in her. We’re there, too, even though when she tries to sing her voice is a guttural rasp.
For theatergoers who know little of Callas’s story, Mr. McNally has provided arialike monologues in which she relives theatrical triumphs and painful intimate scenes with Onassis. For these, Thomas Lynch’s set dissolves from the prosaic wood-paneled auditorium into a cavern of pulsing darkness with illuminated glimpses of grandeur past (David Lander did the lighting), while the real Callas’s inimitable voice fills the air. (Jon Gottlieb is the sound designer.)
Much of the writing in these scenes is in the shameless tradition of roman à clef potboilers, as when Maria confesses to Ari that she is pregnant and longs to bear his child. (It doesn’t help that Callas must speak his lines as well.) But Ms. Daly’s ferocious commitment to every word Callas utters keeps embarrassment at bay (well, mostly).
As Callas speaks of the precious revenge that success brings her, her eyes glitter with the hunger of a woman ready to devour the world. That glitter dims when Callas steps back into the present tense, but we know it’s still waiting to fire up again.
It is perhaps appropriate that the supporting cast, which leans toward crowd-courting cuteness, largely seems so inauthentic compared to Ms. Daly. But it means that the dramatic tension is almost entirely within her. Of the singers, only Mr. Sorenson’s character is able to engage Callas, with a sexual connection that briefly and affectingly imbalances her.
Ms. Silber, an appealing presence, overplays the comic awkwardness. In the role of the fiery and obviously gifted Sharon, created by Audra McDonald (who won a Tony for holding her own with Ms. Caldwell), Ms. Boggess (of “The Little Mermaid”) registers as far too pallid to be a threat to a Callas, even one who has lost her voice.
In fairness, Ms. Daly’s Callas seems unbreakable. She is on occasion vulnerable, but she is never fragile in the way that Ms. Caldwell was in the part. The artist’s ego remains, in this case, an indomitable monster. At one point Callas, remembering herself singing at the top of her form, says: “That’s who I am. This voice.” And though this woman’s body can no longer produce this voice, you don’t doubt that it still exists and that it still defines her.
“Nobody cares the troubles you’ve seen,” cautions Maria Callas (Daly) in Master Class. “It’s our work that matters. Only our work.” Terrence McNally feels otherwise. His gossipy 1995 divasploitation drama depicts Callas’s excursions into teaching after her voice gave out—several passages are borrowed from her 1971 semester at Juilliard—but this setup is mostly framework for a broadly drawn, trashily colored portrait of the great soprano as an aging camp dragon with tattered scales.
No one would expect a Broadway play to reproduce the intelligent, specific technical insights of Callas’s instruction. But McNally’s version of her is demeaning: Not only prone to bitchy one-liners and tedious theatrics—sniping at rival singers, upstaging her students at every turn—she is also a poor and unprofessional instructor, alternately insulting her charges and goading them with platitudes about acting. (“Try isn’t good enough. Do,” she advises, Yoda-like.) Lacking Callas’s elegance, the estimable Daly nonetheless controls the stage and the audience with command, and lends shading to the writing wherever she can; less successful are the three actors playing her students, guided with a heavy hand by Stephen Wadsworth.
The pedagogical sequences, at least, have a patina of high culture, unlike the pair of vulgar, melodramatic flashbacks about Callas’s doomed affair with Aristotle Onassis that form the climaxes of both acts. “This is a master class, not a psychiatrist’s office,” she announces early on—to no avail. Stripping La Divina of both mastery and class, McNally shrinks her with a vengeance.
What do opera singers do when they outlive their voices? Often they teach, and if they're famous enough, they may be invited to give "master classes" in which they work with promising students in front of an audience. Maria Callas, the most famous and admired opera singer of the 20th century, taught a series of master classes at New York's Juilliard School in 1971, six years after she retired from the stage, and Terrence McNally, who in addition to being a much-produced playwright is a well-informed opera buff and occasional librettist, used them as the basis for a 1995 play called "Master Class" that hit big on Broadway and has since been revived frequently elsewhere. Now "Master Class" has returned to Broadway by way of Washington's Kennedy Center, this time in a production starring Tyne Daly, who has admitted in numerous interviews to knowing nothing about opera, and staged by Stephen Wadsworth, a theatrical director who also has extensive opera-house experience. It's a toothsome piece of melodrama, though you'll likely enjoy it more if you don't know much about opera, or about Ms. Callas.
It happens that Ms. Callas's master classes were recorded—you can hear them on YouTube—and so the first thing that needs to be said about "Master Class" is that it has very little to do with what happened at Juilliard 40 years ago. Except for Ms. Callas's last speech, which is drawn more or less verbatim from the tapes, Mr. McNally's play is mostly made up out of whole cloth, and while the teaching scenes are generally pretty believable, he has elsewhere sugared the pill thickly with overobvious humor of his own. In fact Ms. Callas was a notoriously humorless woman whose classes were brisk and businesslike, and she never sniped bitchily at her real-life students the way she does in "Master Class," in the process suggesting a character from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Instead she treated them as young professionals, and they in turn behaved professionally, not like the garish stick figures of this production. Mr. Wadsworth may be to blame for the latter problem, though, since Mr. McNally does not specify in his script that the three students portrayed in "Master Class" should act cartoonishly.
Not surprisingly, it's in the teaching scenes that Mr. Wadsworth's operatic know-how pays off richly: They give an uncanny sense of how a teacher conveys hard-won knowledge to a responsive pupil. Ms. Daly, of course, looks nothing like Ms. Callas, but she does contrive to look like a diva in "Master Class," in part because she's been made over with uncanny skill by Martin Pakledinaz and Angelina Avallone, the costume and makeup designers. Her acting, though it's a bit broad, smolders with remembered heartbreak, and her three hapless students, played by Sierra Boggess, Alexandra Silber and Garrett Sorenson, all pierce the veil of caricature and give effective performances. (Mr. Sorenson, incidentally, sings his aria, Puccini's "Recondita armonia," with passion and brilliance.)
Thomas Lynch, the set designer, turns the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre into a ghostly opera house for the two monologues in which Callas recalls the splendors and miseries of her youth. This is a gratuitous touch—Ms. Daly sets the scene far more than adequately all by herself—but it's in keeping with the scenes themselves, which are too ripe for comfort. They work, though, as does the rest of "Master Class," which is completely successful on the level of intelligent entertainment and manages along the way to say shrewd and penetrating things about the adamantine will without which no singer, however talented, can hope to become a world-class artist.
In Tyne Daly’s striking turn as Maria Callas, it’s not so much Callas’s imperiousness that comes across, as the ferocity of her self-belief. Or maybe what you feel is simply her intense need to believe in herself, a yearning stoked by the tangle of her great gifts and greater insecurities.
Whatever psychological complex might be ascribed to her interpretation of the mystique-enshrouded diva of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” Daly’s performance can safely be diagnosed as top of the line. The actress effectively shrinks the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where the revival opened Thursday night, to the dimensions of a confessional, a place where we drink in the reveries and memories of a star whose voice gave out long before her ache for the follow spot.
Sierra Boggess, left, gives a poised performance as a prim soprano, one of the “victims” who endures Callas’s berating.
The stitching of McNally’s Tony-winning play from 1995 — staged by the Kennedy Center last spring and remounted by the Manhattan Theatre Club with two changes of supporting cast — is too rough for “Master Class” to qualify as classic. The integration in each act of a spoken aria, in which Callas tallies her triumphs at La Scala and despairs (the affair with Aristotle Onassis), is a clumsy biographical device that sucks a goodly amount of air out of the evening.
Even so, “Master Class” remains a diverting and at times juicily amusing vehicle for an actress capable of bottling a prima donna’s blunt-force charisma. And Daly proves again to be just that. If anything, the performance has grown since Washington .
The refinements are apparent in the lively interplay among Callas and the trio of voice students — or “victims,” in the diva’s parlance — who are paraded one by one onto the stage, to sing and be subjected to the stinging critiques of the legendary “La Divina.”
Daly’s Washington Callas exuded more warmth than her Broadway Callas — perhaps initially in the minds of Daly and her excellent director, Stephen Wadsworth, there was a little more concern about an audience liking her. Truth be told, a martinet can be irresistible, as long as you are out of the line of fire. Daly seems to have internalized Callas’s pain on a deeper scale; her character is less conscious, as a result, of the pain she inflicts on others.
Thus the cutting remarks McNally places in Callas’s mouth are now funnier and, at times, more shocking. (The show is loosely based on a series of master classes presided over at Juilliard by Callas, who died in 1977 at the age of 53.) When, for instance, a prim soprano (Sierra Boggess, once of Broadway’s “Little Mermaid”) enters in a stunning gown, Callas’s cruel put-down gives us to understand how drained of compassion the bruised opera star might have been by this late stage of her career. It’s diva as “Mommie Dearest”: Her rage is such that she can’t feel for anyone but herself.
Her sessions of scolding and occasionally encouraging the singers who’ve come to absorb her wisdom remain the evening’s high points. Garrett Sorenson makes an especially good match for Daly as a tenor who has the comfort level with himself to withstand Callas’s onslaught. Boggess gives a poised account of a singer who slowly gathers herself and rises to the occasion, and Jeremy Cohen brings a becoming sweetness to the role of Manny, the deferential accompanist.
“Master Class,” however, is about 99 and 44 / 100 percent Callas, a proportion that works just fine with Daly cracking the whip.