Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 W. 47th Street
New York, N.Y.
Tyne Daly’s living room shelves are full of awards, including four Emmys for her role as a female cop in the long-running TV series Cagney and Lacey. Few of her performances in the past were as stirring as her portrayal of 1960s and ‘70s opera superstar Maria Callas, a diva with a capital D who ruled the gossip columns as completely as she did the stages at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and La Scala in Milan, in a revival of the 1995 play Master Class, that opened on Friday.
Terrance McNally’s Master Class shows Callas as an opera teacher in a series of workshops for young singers at the Juilliard School in New York in the early 1970s (true story). She tutors three singers, each with a different voice, style and personality. It is Callas, though, who towers over all of them and tells the story of her rich and tumultuous life, that tumbled across two continents.
Daly, immaculately dressed in a sharp-looking black pants suit and scarf, is very, very funny, just as Callas was. She shows Callas as petty, devious, feudal, confrontational and a soaring egomaniac (“I have no rivals,” she sneers at one point, “you can only have rivals when people have the same talents that you do.”)
Maria Callas, a New Yorker who was trained in Greece and shot to fame in Europe in the 1950s and ‘60s, earned much of her glory not just as an accomplished singer, but an actress as well. The dramatic personality she brought to her operatic characters was virtually unmatched. Here, in Master Class, Daly explains, again and again, how she achieved that and why others did not. She explains, too, how her ability to do that made her a superstar. Near the end of act one, she puts on a shimmering performance that ends with her on stage, arms raised high, lights on, music playing, audience applauding madly as she tells all she was “the center of the Universe.”
But what made Callas so famous was not just her marvelous voice. It was her place in the world’s gossip columns and a lifestyle that featured a tough, take-no-prisoners personality. She insisted on being the highest-paid opera singer in the world. She partied as hard as she sang, had romantic relationships with many men, graced the cover of just about every major magazine and carried on feuds that became legendary (when asked to compare herself to rival opera star Renata Tebaldi, she snapped “it was like comparing champagne to coca-cola.”).
The highlight of her off stage life was her nine year affair with Greek billionaire shipping mogul Aristotle Onassis, started during her ten-year marriage to wealthy Italian industrialist Giovanni Meneghini. In the end, Onassis dumped her and married Jackie Kennedy. The break up ruined Callas emotionally.
All of the performers on stage do a superb job. The three students, all wonderful singers and actors, are Sierra Boggess as Sharon Graham, Alexandra Silber as Sophie De Palma and Garrett Sorenson as Anthony Candolino. Jeremy Cohen plays her pianist, Emmanual Weinstock. In addition to the fine play, they give the audiences a number of well sung operative arias.
The play tells you a great deal about Callas’s history, including her days growing up in Greece during World War II, and afterwards, and how she forged her unique path to stardom in the operatic world. The problem with the history in Master Class is that it is not that rich. We don’t learn much about the storied opera houses she sang at, the changes in opera from 1941 to 1977, when she died, or the historic differences between American and European opera worlds.
\We certainly don’t learn enough about Onassis. I don’t think she even mentioned his last name in the play. She does talk about getting pregnant by him at the end of the show, and his departure from her life, but it takes up very little time. Another few minutes about Onassis, and her other men, and her ten-year marriage, would have reminded the audience what a social butterfly she was and why she dominated the gossip columns. If you know a lot about Maria Callas you will not miss any of this, but if you do not, you’ll need it.
She was born in a New York City hospital and moved to Greece as a child. She was trained at a musical school in Athens, where she began years of squabbling with her mother. The singer made her operative debut at age nineteen, picked up some minor roles at the Greek National Theater and then, in 1949, became a star when she filled in for another woman in an opera. She made her debut at Milan’s La Scala in 1951. The rest was history, but it was always interesting. In addition to the men in her life, she fought a huge battle to lose weight. In the mid 1950s, the 5’8” Callas weighed 200 pounds. She went on a long diet and dropped eighty pounds. With her slimmed down figure, she looked very glamorous, although critics said the weight loss brought on the early ruin of her voice.
Callas’ career slid in the late 1960s. She became a bit of a recluse, living in Paris, and died in 1977, just 53 years old, of heart failure. There might have been more of this in the play.
McNally’s play itself is a good one, but not a great work. There is very little plot and not much action from anyone except Callas. The opera star is the lynchpin of the story. Thankfully, Daly does a superb job of playing Callas, even though she does not look that much like her. The result is a very happy night in the theater and a rewarding plunge into show business history.
Much of the success of the play, and Daly, and the co-stars, can be attributed to the directorial skills of Stephen Wadsworth, who insists on superb timing by all and has given the performers much room to roam about the stage, breathing extra life into the story. He did wonders with Daly, who does a marvelous job of adopting Callas haughty demeanor and superstar habits.
PRODUCTION: Producers: Manhattan Theater Club, Max Cooper, Maberry theatricals, Marks-Moore-Turnbull Group and Ted Snowdon. Set: Thomas Lynch, Costumes: Martin Pakledinaz, Lighting: David Lander, Sound: Jon Gottlieb. Directed by Stephen Wadsworth.
Bruce Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org