By Emily Couch
NEW YORK, N.Y., U.S.A. – “Master Class” is a Tony Award-winning play by Terrence McNally based on the famous master classes that opera diva Maria Callas used to give at The Juilliard School in New York.
McNally’s words combined with a magnificent performance by Tyne Daly in the lead role succeed in making Callas a tragic, if not likeable, heroine who sacrificed everything for her art.
The setting of the play, showing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is in an unidentified auditorium and time with three hopeful opera students facing the criticism of the formidable Madame Callas (as she likes to be called).
The clever set, designed by Thomas Lynch, is quite minimalistic in comparison to most exuberant Broadway shows – using a simple piano and a few chairs.
Even when we are drawn into flashbacks at La Scala (Milan’s famous opera house), Lynch utilizes only the façade of a pillar and a red curtain – mainly relying on lighting to create the atmosphere.
Unusually, with this play, instead of creating a scene for the audience to merely observe, McNally has incorporated the audience into the story.
Callas actually addresses the audience as if they have come to watch a real master class.
At first, this may be quite disconcerting as we are used to plays being confined to the stage.
At one point, Callas demands, “Can we do something about those lights?” and you feel almost unsure whether this is scripted or a rather awkward improvisation, but you find yourself gradually warming to the style which makes the piece feel even more authentic.
Now, although Callas insists throughout, “This is not about me, pretend I’m not even here,” it is obvious that McNally intended his play to be about one woman and one woman only – Maria Callas. The three students are inconsequential to the development of the plotline itself, acting merely as triggers to bring out Callas’ almost cruel yet tragic nature and reminiscence.
Daly, whose many credits include the Tony Award-winning musical “Gypsy” and the popular cop show “Cagney and Lacy,” succeeds marvelously in bringing La Divina to life, although she protested about taking on the role of Callas at first.
“I haven’t had a lot of glamor requirements in my career,” she told writer Henry Haun. “Have you noticed I play blue collar a lot?”
Sometimes, you almost forget that it’s not the great Diva herself who is on stage before you.
During the play, Callas has two monologues in which we are thrust back into moments in her past: her debut at La Scala in Milan, her romantic relationship with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis and her troubled relationship with her colleagues.
It is here that Daly shows the sheer quality of her acting, moving seamlessly from playing a torn Callas to a rich and crude Onassis. It almost reminds one of the Greek Pantomimes in which one actor was required to play every part perfectly.
Daly also shows the complexity of character and emotions perfectly. We can see the conflict between Maria the woman and Callas the artist because she will constantly contradict herself. For example, she tells the students never to look at the audience.
“It should be just you and the music,” she says, yet when we see her flashback to La Scala Opera House, we see how much she craves the adulation of the audience.
At one point, Callas shouts, “I hate the word ‘Act’ – but ‘be’…”
Watching the play, it is abundantly clear that Daly isn’t playing Maria Callas – she is Maria Callas.
McNally has written Callas such that, at times, we want to both throttle her for her harshness to the students and give her the affection her life so clearly lacked.
Scottish export Alexandra Silber (whose credits include “Woman in White” and “Fiddler on the Roof”) plays victim number one, the bubbly Sophia De Palma.
She has prepared a Bellini aria but no sooner has the music started than Callas completely tears her down, criticizing her posture, her listening and her expression.
Sophia clearly admires Callas and tries desperately to ingratiate herself to her and impress her but all she gets in return is cruelty, which eventually brings her to tears.
I felt a lot of empathy for Sophia because, as a singer, I could identify with her desire to please and succeed.
A similar scenario happens to victim number two, Sharon Graham, played by the incredible Sierra Boggess, whose credits include London’s “Love Never Dies,” Broadway’s “Little Mermaid” and “Phantom – the Las Vegas spectacular.”
However, when affable funnyman Anthony Candolino, a tenor played by Garret Sorenson, (whose opera credits include “Il Pirata” opposite Renné Flemming) sings, Callas actually allows herself to be moved by the voice and the music which leads the audience to suspect it wasn’t that the two sopranos weren’t good enough, but that Callas felt threatened by their youth and talent.
But, after the tenor, who should come back on stage? That’s right, the unsinkable Sharon Graham. She’s chosen Lady Macbeth’s aria from the letter scene, which is perfect for her fiery attitude.
Unlike Sophia, she actually stands up to Maria and has the guts to say what everyone is thinking.
“I don’t like you,” she says forcefully. “You are just jealous that we are young and still have our voices. …You want us all to lose our voices in 10 years like you! Well I won’t be like you! I hate people like you.”
Here you feel conflicted. You’re happy that Sharon has stood up to her, but knowing her past, you feel strangely sympathetic to the diva at the same time.
Although not the best place for listening to uninterrupted arias, I strongly recommend “Master Class” to all Broadway goers, especially those with a love of singing or performing themselves.
You may find you learn some interesting, sometimes cruel and inspiring ideas about the profession.
The show even includes some funny moments.
Clinton Brandhagen plays the small yet comedic part of the disrespectful stagehand, creating a humorous contrast to the cultured Maria.
The biggest laughs come, however, when Callas herself tries to be funny.
With a tone-deaf sense of humor, her “jokes” are so completely not funny to anyone but her that they end up leaving the audience in stitches. They’re so bad that they’re good.
She accuses Manny the pianist, skillfully played by Jeremy Cohen, of not having “a look.”
A “look,” she insists, is vital to success.
“To any of you who have a look, I salute you,” she tells the audience. “To those who don’t – get one.”
Yes, Madame Callas.