A 'Master Class' Worth Auditing: Tyne Daly Excels as Maria Callas

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On June 19 I wrote a post anticipating the return to Broadway of Terrence McNally’s wonderful play, Master Class, with Tyne Daly in the challenging and iconic role of Maria Callas. Having seen the new Manhattan Theatre Club production on July 6, I can report that Daly fully stakes her claim as heir to a role that has prismatically brought forth distinct traits of Callas with each actress who plays her.

Daly understands that McNally’s Maria (for purposes of this article, “Maria” will be the character in the play while “Callas” will refer to the opera singer herself) is unaware how humorless and conceited she is. This is someone who correctly extols the virtues of work, study, thoroughness and service to the composers, but cannot help but fall into petty digressions. Her complaining and archness come from an awareness of how things should be and her own inability to achieve what she preaches. We believe her declarations about art because we know they are ideals to aspire to, ones that Callas did brilliantly for about a decade.

She tells us “the composers know the human heart; all we have to do is listen.” She then chides the audience, saying “Listening takes concentration. If you can’t hear me, it’s your fault.” About Joan Sutherland, she tells us not to be critical of her--in Maria’s view--shortcomings. Joan “did her best. That’s all any of us can do.”

Part of McNally’s brilliance here is making us discover Callas’s genius and inadequacies in the same moment. She was born in New York City in a poor family and had great anger and resentments from the start. She had the gift of a large flexible voice as well as the musicianship and dramatic insight to plumb the score and text of a role to create memorable performances. She could sound like a grande dame in conversation, with no trace of her roots, but never abandoned the toughness and absence of levity that her childhood produced. Maria says, in the play, that she never had the chance to be young. To get a sense of the public figure Callas was in the years after her singing career basically ended, watch her being interviewed in 1967 by Lord Harewood at the age of 44. She is fascinating but terribly contrived. Daly communicates this Maria to us without doing an impersonation.

Mining the Callas-Onassis Relationship

Even for someone who has seen Master Class numerous times, each new staging and cast arouses new thoughts. That is part of what makes it a great play. This time I asked myself about the myth and facts of the relationship of Callas and Aristotle Onassis. Maria quotes him as saying that together they are two Greeks who rule the world, he as the richest man and she as the greatest singer. We generally accept the oft-repeated story that Onassis made her stop singing and then left her for Jacqueline Kennedy with Callas having no voice any more. Based on the Maria in the play, I wondered if anyone could make Callas do anything she did not want to do. We then learn that Maria is pregnant by Onassis, who forces her to have an abortion.

Sometimes images tell us more. Watch this footage of Callas and Onassis, with Callas singing “Ah, non credea mirarti” the second part of “Oh! Se una volta sola... Ah! non credea mirarti,” a sleepwalking scene from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. This is the first aria “taught” in Master Class. In the play this turns into a sort of dream sequence for Maria and is a real coup-de-theatre.

The warmest part of the play is when a young tenor sings “Recondita armonia,” Mario Cavaradossi’s aria in the first act of Puccini’s Tosca. Maria in the play remarks that Tosca, at that moment, is in the wings preparing for her first entrance so she never noted how gorgeous this music is. Here is Giuseppe di Stefano, a frequent Callas partner, singing that aria live in Dublin:

With this I must register the one weak spot in Daly’s performance, something that can be rectified (or I would not mention it). Callas was a perfectionist, one who was painstakingly exacting in every aspect of her appearance, musicianship, diction and acting. Her Italian diction and phrasing were nearly perfect, particularly for someone who was not a native Italian. To speak and sing Italian correctly, the vowels must be pronounced in a particular way. Because we hear examples of the real Callas’s singing, we know how she produced those vowels.

Daly’s E and O in Italian are constricted where they should be rounder and longer. When she quotes Medea addressing Jason in Cherubini’s opera, she rages Ho dato tutto a te! (I gave everything to you!). These Os (ohhh), A (ah), U (ooo), and E (ehhh) must thunder but Daly does not do that. The vowels need to be punctuated by the Ts, but we are disappointed. There are frequent instances of this throughout the play, and Callas would have disapproved. Daly needs to unclench her teeth to properly render these Italian vowels.

It was conspicuous in the play when the three student singers (played by Alexandra Silber, Garrett Sorenson and Sierra Boggess) often made more of the Italian language than Daly’s Maria. When Sorenson sang the words solo pensiero in his aria, I realized that his vowels in that moment were better than any that Daly produced in Italian for the whole play. All three young singers brought a lot to their roles and, if I have an occasional quibble, they nonetheless were well cast opposite Daly. Kudos as well to Jeremy Cohen, who plays Manny, the patient and reverent accompanist who is in awe of Maria but also performs professionally as she alternately flirts with and belittles him. In the small role of the stagehand, Clinton Brandhagen found the humor in his “techie” indifference to big stars.

A Vocal Decline Portrayed in Close-Up

The key conflict in the play is between Maria and a strong-willed and talented soprano (Boggess) named Sharon. I noted tonight that Sharon “brought” Lady Macbeth, the Queen of the Night (from Die Zauberflöte) and Norma to sing for Maria. No young artist should attempt the first and the third and very few can sing the second.  It made me think that either Sharon was trying to emulate Callas, who did too much too soon and wrecked her voice, or had very bad advice from her teachers.

The letter aria, “Nel dì della vittoria... Vieni! t'affretta!” from Verdi’s Macbeth, is a great dramatic scene with very hard music. In the play Maria instructs Sharon to not mime a letter in her hand but to get a sheet of paper to use as a prop. But once she holds it, Sharon is told by Maria that she should not read it because Lady Macbeth has committed it to memory. “That is not Verdi. That is not Shakespeare. That is Callas!” says Maria. 

Having been transfixed by this scene in the play, I remembered that there is a famous video of Callas performing this aria in concert in Hamburg in 1959. Notice what happens as Callas sings the aria. She flattens her hand and pretends to read the letter before looking away and reciting it--exactly what Maria tells Sharon not to do. In this concert Callas creates theater as Lady Macbeth but also drama as she deals with the music. She struggles often, no more so than at 2:07, when her voice fails her and she gestures to the audience in apology. She glances three times at the conductor and grips the podium rail the whole time. She is 35 years old, an age when most sopranos are entering the best years of their careers, and this looks and sound like an artist in decline.

Daly, at age 65 playing Maria at about 48 years old, perfectly captures the essence of knowing how an aria should be sung but being unable to do it herself. It is a deeply moving moment in a play chock full of them. It is chilling to hear Sharon call Maria “dangerous.” We know that she is, but we nonetheless are fascinated by her. Singers such as Renata Tebaldi and, later, Mirella Freni, may have been more prudent and sang with more ease and beauty (I am at the top of the huge heap of Freni worshipers), but they were never dangerous. Danger in opera is thrilling.

Attention for excellent work also should go to scenic designer Thomas Lynch, costume designer Martin Pakledinaz and, above all, director Stephen Wadsworth, who has done many excellent opera productions but understands that this is a play whose requirements are clean, clear storytelling as well as the deep exploration of the meaning of the words. It is a play, not an opera. Wadsworth did his job beautifully and unobtrusively, which is high praise from me. We have a director with vision, but not one who imposes a concept that a play and actors must conform to.

What I took away from McNally’s play this time, more than ever before, is that a theater actor can learn a great deal from Maria’s opinions on performance and life. They are wise and sound, and yet we see the disaster that they created in the woman who dispensed them. Like Tosca, Callas lived for art and lived for (being) loved. Is that something to emulate?