Top Pick! — The final installment of “Terrence McNally’s Nights at the Opera”—a trio of opera-themed dramas running concurrently at the Kennedy Center — the Tony Award-winning Master Class is hands-down the best of the bunch.
A large measure of this production’s success is due to the phenomenal performance of veteran Broadway, film, and TV actress Tyne Daly in the starring role.
Master Class (1995) was inspired by a real life series of vocal master classes conducted at Juilliard by celebrated soprano Maria Callas circa 1971-72. McNally uses the originals as a departure point for conjuring up, with stunning effectiveness, the person and spirit of perhaps the greatest diva of our modern era.
There’s no real plot to Master Class. But then again, there’s no plot to a master class, either. A famous performing artist—piano, voice, whatever’s going—appears on stage with an accompanist and listens to a select few aspiring young performing singers or instrumentalists. Carefully, often competitively selected beforehand, these young performers are eager for the opportunity to be critiqued by a legend in their chosen field. They hope to get specific pointers that might help transform them from good artists into great ones. What the audience gets is a chance to gain some insight into the yawning chasm that exists between talented unknowns and big time stars.
Taken as performance art, nearly every master class is all about the star power of its instructor. McNally’s Master Class is no exception. At its core, it’s really a one-woman play about the life and times of Maria Callas, the controversial Greek-American soprano whose shooting-star operatic career still engenders fevered discussions among opera fanatics today.
Starting out as a chubby, awkward, yet talented unknown, Callas, by sheer force of will, became almost overnight a svelte, glamorous singing sensation, packing opera houses from La Scala to the Met with cheering, adoring fans. Aside from her uncommon vocal skills—in her prime, she could cleanly nail stratospheric high notes like no other—she was also a distinctive if occasionally over mannered actress.
In an era where chunky, static singers considered their costumes sufficient enough to project character, Callas acted her parts with tremendous passion and conviction. Watching filmed or kinescope excerpts of her performances dating from the 1950s, we’d regard her style today as somewhat overly formal. Yet the essence of her innovation survives. Nearly any opera performance will get a thumbs-down today if its star singers forget they’re also expected to act.
Callas’ own career proved tragically short. Developing an opera voice requires patience and lots of time. Young opera singers gain experience and eventual vocal heft by starting out with lighter, lyric operas—Mozart’s comedies, bel canto operas by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti—and slowly building toward larger dramatic roles that require more power and punch, such as in the operas of Verdi, Puccini, and most definitely Richard Wagner. The idea is to develop greater breath control and volume while building vocal strength and stamina without damaging the vocal cords that define a voice’s scope and character.
Without proper guidance in her early years, Callas reached up and out too fast. Eager to achieve rapid stardom and fame, this impatient, driven vocalist almost certainly peaked before she was 40. Musicologists and opera aficionados alike disagree on the reasons. Did she push her vocal cords too strenuously and too early? Or did her rapid weight loss cause diminished support for her instrument? Objectively, it’s really impossible to say. But in a profession where artists like Placido Domingo can sustain near-peak vocal excellence for 25 years or more, Callas fell from the opera firmament like a modern day Icarus.
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, she embarked on a lengthy, disastrous affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Yes, the very same Ari who later married Jacqueline Kennedy after callously tossing Callas—whom he never married—over the side.
This is the Maria Callas we meet in McNally’s Master Class. Perhaps a bit chastened by life but never defeated by it, this 40-something Callas is still the ultimate diva, though she’s mellowed out maybe just a bit. She expects the eager young singers in her master class to be good, maybe very good vocally. But she knows that’s simply not enough.
To become an opera star, Callas is convinced that aspiring singers needed to do more than stand there and sing. As in method acting, they have to actually become their character. Opera fans expect their heroes, heroines, and villains to be bigger than life. They will settle for nothing less.
And if you’re an aspiring young singer, don’t simply “try” to be good. For Callas, “trying” is never good enough. You always have to “be,” to “do.” You channel your character on stage like an active verb. And offstage, you’re a unique, distinctive persona 24/7.
Tyne Daly gets all this from the outset. As she strides purposefully from the wings, the actress disappears in a twinkling. Made up to bear an approximate likeness to the fast-aging diva—whose life ended suddenly with a heart attack at the still young age of 53—Daly literally inhabits Callas. Her wit, wisdom, vanity, and catty sense of humor. Her grand mannerisms, her brittleness, her barely restrained temper, her obvious impatience with anything less than excellence. And yes, her surprising vulnerability.
Tyne Daly’s delicious performance is indeed something to be savored. Yet it wouldn’t have been possible without the drama’s small but important supporting cast, particularly the play’s three young singer/victims. McNally made sure that each of them possess character and vocal flaws guaranteed to run aground on the treacherous shoals of La Callas’ superstar standards. Each triggers criticisms from Daly’s diva that help us gain deeper insight into her background, character, and tragic flaws.
Alexandra Silber’s gawky soprano, Sophie, is first on deck. Except that she’s late—not a good idea when Callas is in charge. She’s also disorganized and thoroughly intimidated, neither of which are endearing to a perfectionist. While never getting to sing much, Silber is eminently believable as a talented vocalist who has no clue as to how to evolve from a mere graduate student into something better. She’s nice but exasperating, the perfect portrait of a decent artist who’s destined for a lifetime of waiting tables.
Next up is tenor Tony, portrayed by strapping former Cleveland Brown/Baltimore Raven footballer Ta’u Pupu’a, whose gridiron injuries led to an early retirement and his surprising backup career as an opera singer. Pupu’a’s football days seem to have been an asset in his re-creation of Tony, an accomplished, overly confident singer who just wants to sing songs—oblivious of the stagecraft requirements so important to Callas. Pupu’a’s splendid vocal performance in Cavaradossi’s Act I aria from “Tosca” moves the diva, who promptly flashes back to darker moments in her tempestuous past.
Most problematic for Daly’s character is the third and final singer-aspirant, the vexing Sharon, bitingly portrayed in this production by soprano Laquita Mitchell. Brooding, temperamental, loaded with attitude, yet elegantly attired in an evening gown, Mitchell’s Sharon is unwittingly a mirror image of a younger Callas. She’s got her own mind, her own set of issues, and views the world as a highly personal adversary to be mercilessly crushed. Claws are unsheathed and operatic juices flow as the young bitch goddess confronts the older one, forcing the latter to look into her own painful and lonely past.
The remaining cast members have lesser roles but are key to the production’s success. As Manny, the evening’s designated accompanist, Jeremy Cohen shines in what is effectively a dual role. In the first place, yes, Cohen can play the piano and really well. He’s also a fine, self-effacing actor whose character is pleased and humbled by the honor of working with the great Maria Callas. He’s not obsequious, but knows and accepts his small supporting role as an Everyman with a bit part to play in musical history.
Equally effective Clinton Brandhagen’s mordant yet witty performance as the unnamed “Stagehand.” Dressed like a New York union backstage worker, complete with a Yankees baseball cap, Brandhagen’s stagehand doesn’t give a hoot about anyone’s alleged importance. He views Callas’ every request with contempt. His eventual attempts at cordiality drip with disdain. He’s an odd but effective foil for Callas who has no authority whatsoever in his world.
Taken as a whole, the Kennedy Center’s “Nights at the Opera” trilogy is thoughtful, challenging theater. McNally’s, Golden Age and Lisbon Traviata are insightful, funny, and intriguing. They’re marred somewhat by occasional pockets of philosophical gasbagging. But with fine actors in every role, they’re still well worth seeing.
Master Class, however, is a drama of real distinction, fully living up to its Tony Award status. McNally’s seemingly random yet well-planned dramatic excursion explores with great effectiveness the very human heart and soul of an opera star whose brief, troubled time at the top remains hotly debated. Adding the exquisite performance of Tyne Daly to the mix makes this production of Master Class a must-see for any dedicated theater devotee.
Master Class – TOP PICK!
by Terrence McNally
directed by Stephen Wadsworth
produced at the Kennedy Center by Max Woodward
reviewed by Terry Ponick