“Forget all about me,” says Maria Callas (Tyne Daly), preparing to conduct the titular activity of Terrence McNally’s 1995 play, Master Class (MTC/Friedman Theatre). “Poof! I’m invisible.” A likely story. Through her entire career, through all the triumphs and scandals and miseries and disasters of her rampageous decades as the world’s most celebrated and most argument-provoking opera star, the one thing of which no one could ever accuse Maria Callas was invisibility. You could as easily accuse the Empire State Building of lowness.
In an art form that chronically arouses audience passions, no singer ever aroused more passion than Callas (1923–1977). Through her powerful fusion of acting and singing she became, and remains, the universal synonym for what music-theater at its peak can achieve. Two decades after her death, she was still the best-selling classical artist in recording history, and may still be so in downloads.
When Callas gave the 23 master classes at Juilliard in 1971–72 that served as inspiration for McNally’s play, her voice, like her personal life, was already in shambles. (She did subsequently sing in recital, but with unhappy results.) Nevertheless, she had a vast amount to communicate to students, of which McNally’s play gives only the briefest hints. Instead, his script vacillates uncomfortably between the tabloid-headline stereotype of a tempestuous prima donna to which Callas was often reduced in the public eye, and the passionately committed, thoroughly knowledgeable artist that the actual classes revealed her to be. John Ardoin’s transcription of her comments, Callas at Juilliard (Amadeus Press), remains one of the essential textbooks for anyone aspiring to sing onstage.
As we watch McNally’s Callas alternately inspire, bully, and dismiss three variously resistant student singers, sinking into autobiographical reveries linked to their arias, the script’s vacillations become a problem for the lead actress: Which Callas is this, anyway? Original star Zoe Caldwell, remote from musical sensitivity, played the brittle, defensively arrogant diva; her students’ resentment seemed justified. Patti LuPone balanced the personal and musical passions most effectively. Daly, a forceful, convincingly complex presence in the coaching scenes, seems uncertain and unfocussed in the reveries (where Stephen Wadsworth’s scattershot staging doesn’t help). The four colleagues who play her students and their accompanist do well. It’s particularly reassuring to hear Sierra Boggess produce her lustrous upper register without the belting that made her Little Mermaid an earache-causer, proof that well-trained voices can withstand even Disney disasters.