New York City Theater
Friedman Theater, Broadway
Although TV and stage star Tyne Daly would seem ill-fitted for the role of operatic diva Maria Callas in the revival of “Master Class,” her commanding will and talent paint a searing portrait of an artist in decline. Lacking Callas’ tempestuous hauteur, Daly doesn’t so much imitate her as give an impression of what it means to stand center stage and hand audiences what they came to hear and see.
When Daly’s Callas says it takes “discipline, courage, here, right here, from the guts” to be an artist, oh do we believe her. Prowling the stage, blasting everyone out of her way, through an actor’s alchemy, Daly also symbolizes performers who present one face to the world while hiding underlying insecurities and desperations.
Terrence McNally’s play is both tribute and evisceration. Under the guise of master classes for Juilliard students that Callas presided over in the early 1970s, McNally dissects the woman’s seemingly gigantic ego and her “monstre sacre” personality. He also turns the gorgon on her ears, empathizing with her tragedies and sudden reversals of emotions.
Three students show up to sing for La Divina. One is mousy soprano Sophie De Palma (Alexandra Silber); another robust, supremely confident tenor Anthony Candolino (Garrett Sorenson); the third, soprano Sharon Graham (Sierra Boggess), this one far from mousy.
Callas gives the women who are, after all, potential rivals, a harder time than she does the man. From them all, she demands fidelity to the score. “You must be willing to subjugate yourself to the music,” she says, yet she also wants fidelity to the characters they’re playing. When she gets Graham to rip into the letter scene from Verdi’s “Macbeth,” watch out.
At the end of both acts, McNally flashbacks from the present into Callas’ glory days, juxtaposing her memories of triumphs on opera stages with the turbulence of her tormented relationship with Aristotle Onassis. Though unseen, Ari proves to be the most villainous of villains, vulgar, pompous, cruel and destructive. Yet he functions as the catalyst that brings the high-toned artist that Callas was down to levels of human, sexual needs. Those more primitive emotions are what Daly brings to the role.
Callas, for all her egoism, did help the students, trying to bring out the best in them. Paraphrasing the singer’s actual words, McNally has her say, “The only thanks I ask is that you sing properly and honestly. If you do this, I will feel repaid.”
All of which gives delightful lie to the character’s claim that “This is not about me.” It is and it isn’t. Using the real theater audience as a substitute for those who paid for the privilege of listening to Callas work with students, Daly is imperious, scolding, cajoling, sincere, sympathetic and very funny.
Temperamental and bitchy (she dismisses Joan Sutherland with, “She did her best”), McNally’s Callas is not a tragic figure, as perhaps we’re meant to find her. Stephen Wadsworth, an opera expert, directs broadly, going for the funny bone rather than the jugular.
But this is Tyne Daly’s evening and she grabs it by the throat. Just watch her expression as Boggess spits out, “You want to make the world dangerous for everyone just because it was for you.” Daly’s face advances from anger to self-pity to self-awareness in the blink of an eye. It’s something to see – and so is she.
--David A. Rosenberg
July 13, 2011