If Terrence McNally’s play, Master Class, feels just as fresh and relevant as it did when it premiered nearly twenty years ago, it is not hard to see why. We had all formed our opinion of Maria Callas by the time she died in 1977, and our perception of her both as a glorious singer and tragic heroine has remained fairly immutable since. Thus the play, like the person once our image is fixed, does not age a day.
If the personality of Maria Callas automatically gives a play a lot to work with, two elements make Stephen Wadsworth’s production particularly memorable. The first is Tyne Daly’s flawless performance as the enigmatic soprano. Having also played the role in America, she has the Callas accent, mannerisms, dry wit, curl of the lip and raise of the eyebrow down to a tee, and her presence radiates so strongly that we soon forget that we are not actually looking at the real thing.
The second is the way in which the play is set in one of the master classes that Callas gave in 1971 at the Juilliard School in New York. Since it sees young singers go before her, and lasts as long as a real session might, we have a totally believable basis from which to explore her thoughts and feelings. Of course, theatrical devices are employed, in that Daly can address the audience directly as the master classs own spectators, but it is ultimately Callas interactions with the pupils that reveal her own hopes, ideals, fears and paranoia.
In this way, the play delves into Callas innermost thoughts and feelings. By this very fact, no-one could say just how accurately it has captured these, but based on all that we do know it seems a highly convincing interpretation. Above all, it reveals the wealth of contradictions that lay at the heart of the lady. She refers to audiences and colleagues alike as enemies, and warns that everyone is waiting to stab her in the back. At the same time, she laughs at the papers who describe other singers as her rivals, for they never could be when they simply cant do what she does. The kindest thing she has to say about Dame Joan Sutherland is that she tried her best! She reduces students to tears, insisting that her cruel advice is necessary, and from her own perfectionist viewpoint it is.
At times she can be self-deprecating, telling one pupil that she should play Lady Macbeth as Verdi and not Callas would want, and saying that her students can probably sing the arias better than she could. In other ways, she puffs herself up by showing how she can bring feeling to parts in ways unimaginable to everyone else, and even suggests that it wasnt her sound that people resented, but her soul. Daly seldom sings, and the few passages she does blurt out reveal Callas sadness that she can no longer produce what she once did. However, in silently acting the musical introduction to Ah! se una volta sola from La sonnambula, Daly has a presence worthy of the great lady herself.
The play is less successful in its two flashback sequences where Callas relives her greatest moments at La Scala. By creating a fantasy sequence, we lose the realistic context that makes everything else so believable, and the scenes consequently feel overindulgent and sentimental. This remains a minor quibble, however, as many of the details captured within them are still revealing. In the first, we discover how the memory of a pretty blonde girl at her conservatory stealing the part of Amina in La sonnambula, while she became a nun in Suor Angelica, still rankles. The second reveals much about her private life, marriages and battle with weight.
These scenes occur while the students, having received their lesson, perform their aria in full. Each flashback ends as the student finishes their performance, at which point Callas, after having criticised every last detail during the class, has nothing to say to them. Whether this is because she is too caught up in herself to care, or because ultimately she is impressed with their performances, is not clear. If, however, adherence to the latter interpretation feels too sympathetic given what we have seen of her, this is only because for all her cutting remarks she remains exceedingly likeable. We as the audience, though, have every reason to be impressed with the vocal performances of Naomi OConnell, Dianne Pilkington and especially Garrett Sorenson.
One student does find the courage to confront Callas, suggesting that she wants to make the world dangerous for everyone just because it was for her. There may be some truth in this, but Callas final plea is both convincing and moving. She says that the sky wouldnt fall in if there were no more Traviatas, but that we are all left a little richer and wiser for artists such as her doing what they do. This play should similarly leave you feeling richer and wiser, and it is to be recommended whether your main interest lies in theatre, singing or like Callas the soul.
All of Maria Callas’s Master Classes at the Juilliard School in 1971 are available on CD and DVD, while John Ardoins Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes is published by Amadeus Press.
Further details of Master Class can be found at masterclasstheplay.com