A play about opera legend Maria Callas?
You do love good theatre BUT you are not a great fan of the opera so this one’s not for you? WRONG. This is a play for anyone who loves a great play and fantastic acting.
When I first saw a German production of Terrence McNally’s play in the late 90s, I knew nothing much about Callas and most certainly did not like opera. The latter hasn’t changed, to be honest, although I do appreciate a great performance. I absolutely loved the play and was completely captured by the fabulous performance of one of my favourite German actresses, Doris Kunstmann, who played Callas.
Master Class is the character study of a great diva and a woman whose multi-faceted personality – wit, strength, ego but also vulnerability – make this play appealing to anyone with an interest in human nature and in how a special gift and the lack of love can shape a person. In this case the “special gift” is Callas’ exceptional operatic voice and her ability to feel the music she’s performing – but ‘opera’ is by no means what defines the play.
When I heard that the Broadway revival, directed by Stephen Wadsworth’s and starring Tyne Daly (who you might remember as the latter half of the crime-solving duo Cagney and Lacey), was transferring to the West End, I couldn’t wait to go and see it.
Master Class is pretty much a one-woman-show although there is a supporting cast of five – a pianist, three aspiring opera singers and a stagehand. The play is based on a series of opera master classes given by Callas at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York in the early 70s, only a few years before her untimely death at only 53 years of age.
Master Class breaks the fourth wall and the audience become part of the action, everyone being transformed into one of Callas’ students whom she addresses directly throughout the play. Apart from receiving advice on how to perform opera, the audience are, at times, also the target of the diva’s sharp tongue. This is very funny indeed – unless you happen to be the unfortunate individual in the front row who is being insulted by the grande dame of opera’s dry wit!
This play can only work with a top class actress in the main role. Enter Tyne Daly. From the moment she walks on stage, you just cannot take your eyes off her. She’s ‘class’ personified. Her stage presence and aura are electric. No-one in the audience is talking, checking their mobiles for new twitter messages or rustling sweet wrappers – all of which I had to endure during a performance of Les Misérables a few days before my trip to the Vaudeville.
A smile, a wave of her hand, a frown – people respond and embrace Daly’s presence. She is “la Divina” and you respect her – even if her comments about her students or colleagues are condescending. She makes it sound acceptable, almost like facts. She commands attention. “No applause!” she dictates to those in awe (and possibly a little afraid) of her. “I don’t believe in microphones. If you can’t hear me, it’s your fault because you’re not concentrating.” Her Greek accent is hypnotic.
She doesn’t remember the amiable pianist Emmanuel Weinstock who she’d only worked with the same morning. “Manny”, who adores Callas despite her sarcastic remarks, is played brilliantly by Jeremy Cohen who was also part of the Broadway cast.
The stagehand (Gerard Carey) is kept busy by the diva as well (“Where is my cushion?”; “I need a foot stool!” “Water!”) but does not quite show her the respect and admiration she expects from people around her, which adds to the humour that is found throughout the play, particularly in Act I.
There are three students who receive one-on-one tuition. In Act I, we meet Callas’ first “victim”: young and very enthusiastic soprano Sophie de Palma who is played by Dianne Pilkington, who gives a very good performance and is best known for her portrayal of Glinda in Wicked. She is interrupted by Callas after the first syllable – ‘OH’ – of her chosen piece (La Sonnambula) and a lot of tears are shed by Sophie during the lesson. Callas’ teaching methods might be debatable – however, she does teach her students a valuable lesson they will certainly not forget. It’s not about the singing at all. “Don’t act. Feel! BE!” – “It’s all there, it’s all in the music!”
Maria Callas used music to express herself. She WAS her music. Unloved and unwanted by her mother – who left her father and took her and her “beautiful blonde sister” to Athens – she was the “fat and ugly” one. Her uncaring but ambitious mother forced young Maria to sing; the little girl hated it but soon came to realise that this gift was her chance, her triumph and she worked hard at establishing a career in opera. She was so conscious of her appearance that she lost a lot of weight, created ‘a look’ for herself and became ‘la Divina’. Sadly – either due to the weight loss or to singing too much at a very young age – she had all but lost her exceptional voice by the late 50s when she was still in her thirties.
Her second student, big tenor Anthony Candolino (Garret Sorenson, also Broadway cast) manages to actually impress his teacher with his breath-taking performance of Cavaradossi’s aria from Tosca.
Two egos clash, however, when “victim” number three, soprano Sharon Graham (played by the brilliant Naomi O’Connell), who initially flees the stage after being criticised for her entrance and sparkly dress, confronts her teacher and insults her. Yet there’s no doubt that she’s learned an important lesson when she finally grasps how to sing and act the letter scene of Verdi’s Lady Macbeth.
All three students could almost be perceived as props, there to provoke Callas in one way or another, to evoke memories.
The stage darkens, the present disappears and the audience travel back in time with Callas and get to listen to an authentic recording of her voice while the diva on stage relives her triumphant debut at La Scala in 1951 when everything paid off. Her excitement is tangible. “I win!”
Her “attention to detail”, her ability to find the “truth” in the music and the lyrics, and a lot of “Mut” (German for courage) to face the critics and prove them wrong, made her the great artist that she was and this is what she wants her students to understand.
Working with them also brings back her demons. One of the pieces she works on with one of the students is Cherubini’s Medea. The main character is in love with a powerful man who leaves her for a younger woman. This is the diva’s own story. The man Callas left her husband Giovanni Meneghini and ended her career for – Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis – and the one person she thought she’d found love with, leaves her for Jacqueline Kennedy. “Ho dato tutto a te!” It wasn’t enough. Daly convincingly recounts a dialogue between herself and Onassis on the darkened stage – speaking both parts – and touches the audience’s heart with her personal tragedy. Hats off to Daly for pulling this difficult scene off so superbly!
The image of the strong, larger-than life and indestructible diva crumbles in front of our eyes. It is a wall she has built around herself and her soul, wounded since childhood. Daly does a magnificent job, subtly letting us glimpse Callas’ true self behind the big ego, ‘la Divina’, without once drifting into sentimentalism and picking herself up again immediately.
This Callas is a lonely and bitter woman who has lived and breathed art and has never known true love.
When she receives a bunch of flowers from an admirer, she reads the card attached and remarks matter-of-factly “Always WE love you. Never I love you.”
Whenever she talks about her past – and appears to be talking to herself rather than to her students – she cuts herself short “but that’s another story” – but of course it isn’t. This IS her story and art plays a big part.
So there are several layers to this play – you can lean back and enjoy the wit, the humour, Callas’ interaction with her students. You can ponder the thought-provoking bits about art and truth. You can analyse Callas and realise what a sad, disappointed and isolated person she was despite her success. Or – and this will happen whatever you do – you can just let the fabulous Tyne Daly enchant you. She is mesmerising throughout.
Callas was an operatic genius. With the different shades and colours of her voice and her ability to ‘feel’ what she was singing, she was able to get under the skin of her characters. Daly achieves the same here with her acting skills, showing us the different layers of Callas’ personality – the woman behind la Divina.
Go and see this brilliant and moving production – Tyne Daly will give YOU a master class in fine acting.
Review by Sandra Palme (Twitter: @LondonTheatre2)
Content updated 20th March 2014