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Upon her death in 1977, the Greek-American soprano Maria Callas joined the ranks of those bruised icons (Dean, Monroe, Garland) whose unhappy lives have fueled posthumously the further depredations of cult industries of cultural production. Her relatives, colleagues, admirers, and recording companies have packaged and repackaged the biographical and artistic legacy of Callas endlessly, and often heedlessly, collectively fashioning a romantic narrative of an artist who suffered for [End Page 225] love ever further from, and more obscuring of, Callas’s actual achievements as a startlingly vivid and innovative singing actress.
Terrence McNally has drawn on this composite Callas before, as the patron saint of the sad Mendy in The Lisbon Traviata. The duplicity of that play’s premise—that Callas’s 1957 Lisbon Violetta was a kind of Lost Grail for her fans, when in fact it had circulated widely on readily available pirate recordings—pales before that on display in Master Class, seen at the Philadelphia Theatre Company and The Mark Taper Forum before opening on Broadway in November 1995.
In a program note, McNally avers that when Callas sings, she tells us her secrets, and we tell ours right back. Indeed, Master Class, with its repeated bromides about misunderstood artists and their courage and discipline in the face of a brutal world, would seem an especially nasty authorial fantasy of what it means to be a diva. Certainly the unprofessional behavior and remarks McNally’s Callas indulges in here derive more from a generalized (and misogynist) showbiz narrative about life at the top than from Callas’s career or indeed her well-documented master classes. Drawing loosely on the transcripts and tapes of the classes Callas gave at Juilliard in 1971 and 1972, McNally has fashioned a generic egotistical monster who largely ignores her students, dispenses mordant one-liners and seems to relate to music only insofar as it expresses facets of her pop psychologized and often inaccurately rendered personal biography.
The play transpires in part in “real time,” with the audience treated as the master class audience and a pianist (the excellent David Loud) who enters, warms up, and gestures to an imaginary friend in the auditorium. Other Thornton Wilder touches run to a doubled program and an onstage technician with whom Callas has a running dialogue.
Zoe Caldwell, resplendent in a black Chanel suit, makes a star entrance and gives a tour-de-force performance of wit and steely charm. It remains for subsequent Marias, Patti Lupone and Faye Dunaway (who has acquired the film rights), to capture more precisely the vulgarity inherent in the role as written. The three students function chiefly as victims of Callas’s (or rather McNally’s) one-liners; their personal qualities are generic and obvious, and the lines placed in their mouths stretch all credulity. Nevertheless they are very well embodied by Karen Kay Cody (the awkward one), Jay [End Page 226] Hunter Morris (the overconfident one), and Audra McDonald (the truly talented one who talks back to Callas). The standard of singing is fairly high, though one worries for the future of McDonald’s lovely lyric voice after being put through Lady Macbeth’s punishing Letter Scene night after night.
The fine direction by Leonard Foglia mirrors the simplicity and elegance of the single set by Michael McGarty. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting comes to the fore in two reverie sequences in which Callas relives past triumphs instead of listening to her young charges. As the lighting eerily evokes La Scala’s auditorium and Callas’s recordings of La Sonnambula and Macbeth resound through the theatre, Caldwell delivers with considerable bravura monologues explicitly and facilely linking the music to Callas’s life (Amina for betrayal and Lady Macbeth for ambition). Striking in themselves, these experiments in classical mélodrame highlight a major weakness of the play: those familiar with Callas’s voice will scarcely want to listen...