How Do You Cast an Actress Like Maria?

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There are very few plays about opera singers because you need a performer who can portray that particular mix of grandeur, anxiety and rare gifts many artists possess and also communicate what singing is all about. Indeed, in almost every play about an opera singer you need someone who can sing.

The excellent playwright and opera lover Terrence McNally deftly got around all of these problems when he wrote his play, Master Class, in 1995. Inspired by, but not slavish to, the master classes Maria Callas gave at the Juilliard School in the early 1970s in which she did sing to demonstrate interpretation, the premise of the play is that Callas could speak about her life and art by addressing the audience and the three young singers (two sopranos and a tenor) whom she has agreed to teach. 

The first soprano, Sophie, is buffoonishly incompetent and ungainly, becoming an easy target for Callas’s lacerating comments about her appearance and her attempts to sing an aria from La Sonnambula. Then comes a strapping, egotistical tenor (Tony) whose rough edges Callas polishes and then is taken aback by the romantic beauty of his singing of an aria from Tosca. And finally there is Sharon, a young woman of real talent with whom Callas clashes as she sings the letter scene from Macbeth. In this version of her life, Callas had trouble accepting the talents of others even though she dismisses the notion of having had rivals: “How can you have rivals when no one can do what you can do?” She was a jealous person but also one of the most brilliant, exacting opera singers of all time. It was not only the glamorous appearance she cultivated but the uncompromising dedication to her art, with no shortcuts allowed, that make her unforgettable.

At a couple of key moments, the Callas of the play has a reverie as we hear her sing on recording (right: Callas as Norma, 1965). The actress playing Maria must convey her spirit and vulnerability as a woman while, at the same time, be a surrogate for an icon we all feel we know. It is a great role and a very daunting one. When the play premiered in New York it starred Zoe Caldwell as Callas and a young Audra McDonald as Sharon, winning both of them Tony awards. It was splendidly directed by Leonard Foglia. I saw it several times, including one visit on a blizzardy night with an older gentleman who was a confidante of Zinka Milanov and Joan Sutherland and a dear friend of Zoe Caldwell. He was unfazed by the weather, taking the subway from Brooklyn to the theater (here pronounced Thee-ah-tah) for what turned out to be a sensational performance. I find that actors, singers and audiences who face adversity to get to a performance wind up giving their best.

Afterward my friend swept backstage with me in tow to pay a visit to Miss Caldwell. What struck me was that she was all grand and luvvy offstage, delightfully so, but was very restrained and disciplined onstage, playing each moment for all it was worth and making Callas someone who was cosmopolitan, supremely gifted yet no longer able to use her gifts, and profoundly lonely. In her dressing room after the performance Caldwell had the aura and grandeur we associate with stars such as Callas and certain few theater actresses.

Anyone who saw Caldwell must have thought that when she left the play no one could fill her shoes. And yet Terrence McNally’s Maria is like the iconic Mamma Rose in Gypsy: the role is big enough and deep enough that it can embrace the interpretations of other great actresses. Ethel Merman is legendary in her performance of Rose, thanks to the soundtrack recording, yet there are fewer people around all the time who actually saw her live in the theater.

Subsequent productions of the musical won Tony awards for Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Patti Lupone. Bernadette Peters and Linda Lavin each did creditable interpretations of the role, Bette Midler played it in a TV version and Barbra Streisand has been considering taking on the role in a movie remake, perhaps providing a corrective to the film from the early 1960s starring Rosalind Russell, a wonderful actress who was entirely wrong in this role. The movie should have been Merman’s.

When Caldwell left Master Class, she was replaced by the formidable Lupone (right). She is now one of the few divas of the American stage but at the time had more of the aura of the prima donna (read this earlier post to understand the difference) and that is what she gave to Callas. Her Maria was strong and fiery, but also down and dirty in the way of the marvelous Mamma Rose Lupone would later become.

After came Dixie Carter, who was unexpectedly good in that she understood and played the character as strong, vulnerable, intelligent and also quite musical (more so than Caldwell). I later saw Faye Dunaway in the role. She is an actress who has touched greatness on many occasions but also one whose performances often get wrapped up in the legend of Faye Dunaway. Her Joan Crawford of Mommie Dearest was thrilling and ghoulish--you could not take your eyes off of her even though she looked like the famous mug shot of Michael Jackson’s arrest--and her Callas had some of that flavor too. Also, Dunaway is a wonderful actress for the big screen but the stage has different requirements.

I know that Rita Moreno has played the role (directed by Moises Kaufman) and I seem to think (though cannot confirm) that Diahann Carroll played it too. I would have been pleased to see both of them. The excellent Italian actress Rossella Falk did it in her native language and was very fine, though some of McNally’s wit did not translate well into Italian. I have found things to learn, enjoy and admire in every McNally Maria I have seen. Perhaps the closest to my idea of Callas was Fanny Ardant, who really nailed the role in French (1997) directed by Roman Polanski.

She later was excellent in Franco Zeffirelli’s Callas Forever (2002) a dreadful but delicious film whose conceit was that a flamingly gay manager (Jeremy Irons -- don’t ask!) decides that Callas, who could no longer sing, should make a film of Carmen in which she lip-synchs her recording.

When word came that the first Broadway revival of Master Class was to open at Manhattan Theatre Club in the coming days, people in theater and opera were abuzz with speculation about how the new Maria, Tyne Daly, would stack up against her predecessors, especially Zoe Caldwell. They said the same thing about her when she took on Mamma Rose in 1989. And yet Daly, an incisive and powerful performer, took what were her strengths and gifts and made them work. No one had the clarion voice of Merman and yet Daly had more than enough singing voice (as Lupone later would) and had such a sharp and original take on her character that she scored a blazing success.

I know that Daly likes opera and has singer friends, so that will help her build a character that is not stereotypical prima donna but much more subtle. In this she will have a great partner in director Stephen Wadsworth, whose opera productions are lucid and rational, with a strong emphasis on storytelling. It is not a given that every opera stage director can handle the different demands of a play (and vice versa, as we have abundantly seen in recent years), but I think highly of Wadsworth’s approach.

If things go as we opera lovers hope, McNally’s play will find new audiences who never saw the other ladies in it and, in a corollary to Caldwell, people will soon be saying, “Who can follow Tyne?”

What current actress could you envision playing Maria Callas in a stage version of Terrence McNally’s Master Class?