By the end of "La Traviata", when Violetta dies of consumption, even a passing soprano can usually jerk a tear from the eyes of listeners. Maria Callas could move an audience to weep by the second act. But her thrilling voice was controversial and short-lived. She performed her last opera in 1965, aged 41, and went on to teach at Julliard in the early 1970s—events that inspired Terrence McNally's 1995 play "Master Class". The show has just returned to Broadway in a new production from the Manhattan Theatre Club, with Tyne Daly in the starring role. Directed by Stephen Wadsworth, an opera veteran, "Master Class" proves that a true star can often transcend her material.
The master classes Callas led were sombre, straightforward affairs. The self-indulgent reminiscences, diva-like eruptions and gossip-laden monologues of Mr McNally's play make his portrayal of La Divina (as Callas is often called) about as accurate as the Mozart of Peter Shaffer's film "Amadeus". But the way Mr McNally's heroine badgers the students to fully understand libretto and score does indeed reflect Callas's own approach to singing-notable for the myriad timbres and shadings she used to illuminate the text.
Sondra Radvanovsky, a Metropolitan Opera soprano whose distinctive instrument stands out in a sea of uniformly pretty voices, has said she admires Callas's gifts as a storyteller and her willingness to make an ugly sound in service of the text. Callas took musical and theatrical risks-and the play captures her encouraging the students to do the same.
Ms Daly, best known for playing tough characters, is sophisticated in her black trouser suit, Hermes scarf and Callas-like hair and makeup. She nails the pseudo-international accent of the American-born diva, whose speech was speckled with French and Italian words.
"It's not the note we have to hear, it's a stab of pain," Ms Daly says to a frustrated soprano named Sophie (Alexandra Silber), who is attempting to bring to life Amina's lament from Bellini's "La Sonnambula". Ms Daly's ego-driven, brash character talks of the sacrifices she made for her art, all the while belittling Sophie and a second soprano (Sierra Boggess), mercilessly tasked with singing the letter scene from Verdi's "Macbeth" (both were Callas's specialities). One tenor (performed by the talented Garrett Sorenson) manages to impress her with a passionately sung rendition of "Recondita armonia" from Puccini's "Tosca."
Each act sees the classroom fade from view, to be replaced by images of an opera house accompanied by soundtracks of Callas singing. Ms Daly delivers two monologues recalling the triumphs and misfortunes of Callas's career and love life, including a doomed romance with Aristotle Onassis. (He dumped her for Jackie Kennedy and, according to some sources, convinced her to abort his child.) Callas died alone in Paris in 1977, aged 53.
Callas is a wonderfully dramatic and tortured subject, yet the play's monologues are gratuitously soap-operatic. Nonetheless, Ms Daly is excellent, revealing a Callas-like commitment to text and nuance that vividly evokes La Divina's real despair.
"Master Class" runs through September 4 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater in New York
Picture credit: © Joan Marcus