Tyne Daly Brings Her Imperious Maria Callas Performance To London’s West End

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Master Class: The Manhattan Theatre Club Production of Terrence McNally’s play staring Tyne Daly, directed by Stephen Wadsworth. Vaudeville Theatre, London, 8.2.12. (JPr)

MASTER CLASS by“ Terence McNally Credit: Johan Persson

This fascinating, very familiar play by Terrence McNally is based on the open master classes Maria Callas gave at the Juilliard School in New York, in 1972. But to be honest – and in Tyne Daly’s vivid portrait – it is less about her than a composite caricature of any number of twentieth-century ‘Divas’. Although some of the lines (including, I understand, most of the final speech) have been derived from the recordings of these Julliard sessions, McNally has clearly included the worst aspects of other stars of her generation. The premise is a simple one, Callas, supported by an accompanist at a grand piano and with three aspiring young opera singers waiting in the wings, finds herself centre-stage for the first time in a number of years and – as the director, Stephen Wadsworth, writes in the programme – ‘riffs on the events of her life, and offers a remarkable portrait of the diva.’

Theatregoers need know little about Callas herself to enjoy Master Class, but perhaps they might need to know a little more about some of the hard work any devotion to an art form such as acting, singing or dancing demands to appreciate it to its fullest. Strangely enough, the weekend before I saw this play for the first time I had been witness to a magnificent singer of this current generation, Petra Lang, inspiring and coaching four talented performers to sing better. Ms Lang was gentle and persuasive with none of the fiery temperament and ego that Callas is shown to have, but the minutiae of the class situation and the teacher passing on their experience to the pupil remained strikingly similar. There was a similar concentration on posture, giving due consideration to the importance of consonants and of spitting out words.

Unlike Ms Lang, McNally’s play makes it clear what is happening around Callas does not particularly interest her: the students, their arias, even her own comments, with catty asides and casually dropped names, are only important for the memories of her past glories and the sacrifices she made for her career. Callas had a humble beginning in New York and the spent World War II in Greece in near-poverty before studying at the Greek National Conservatoire and with Spanish coloratura soprano, Elvira de Hidalgo. To improve her art she worked with drive and intensity and that resulted in a remarkable career as the goddess of bel canto that blazed – but then flickered out – within barely 20 years

The play involves three one-on-one lessons, for which Callas provides a running commentary involving people in the front rows of the audience (‘If you can’t hear me it’s your fault – come down close … or leave’), as well as, Manny (Jeremy Cohen), her accompanist, and an insouciant stagehand. The first soprano, Sophie (Dianne Pilkington), only manages the first syllable of her selection from La sonnambula before being stopped and humiliated. The typically laidback tenor, Tony (Garrett Sorenson), fares a lot better, the ardour of his robust performance of Cavaradossi’s first aria from Tosca derails his teacher by its unaffected naturalness. Something Callas had worked so hard for was coming so easily for this singer and she is jealous. That sets the scene for the bruising third encounter with Sharon (Naomi O’Connell), a young soprano who initially is willing to give as good as she gets but who quickly flees the stage for the sanctuary of the toilet after Callas attacks her dress and entrance onto the stage. Indeed her comment ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ – when Sharon tells her she wants to sings the ‘Letter Scene’ from Verdi’s Macbeth – reminded me of the deflating put-downs of Victor Borge.

Master Class has been a ‘star vehicle’ for a number of fine actors but Tyne Daly (a winner of four Emmys for TV’s Cagney and Lacey and a Tony for Rose in Gipsy) was McNally’s choice to play Callas in this staging that was first seen as part of a trilogy of the playwright’s opera-themed dramas put on at Washington’s Kennedy Center – and her performance now comes to London’s West End via Broadway. It is directed with a fairly light touch by Stephen Wadsworth, who has an extensive background in opera, and while there are a number of laugh-out-loud diva moments, Wadsworth and Daly expose some warts and all emotional truths about the all-too-fragile person behind the imperious façade. What really distinguishes Daly’s Callas is the nuances she reveals of how she doesn’t – but clearly does – interact with her students. Callas’s approach is daunting, unflinching, and even pitiless but there is a real sense that she is giving the students something they can take away and use if they have brought a pencil to mark their score – unlike the hapless Sophie! In fact the talent of all the singers – not just the tenor – is a threat to her and when she is focussed on them she is coaxing them – even if it doesn’t seems so – to give of their best, even if that ‘best’ might involve a homage to Callas herself.

‘Attention must be paid to every detail’ says Callas as one of many regal pronouncements on what the theatre demands of a true artist. Tyne Daly does just that and her considerable achievement, is to make someone so mannered and contradictory into a real human being. Especially affecting are the subtle hints of warmth below all the haughty grandeur and airs and graces. Sipping from a glass of water, she reprimands her students for their lack of presence, saying, ‘I’m drinking water … and I have presence.’ Nobody will dispute that here. Costumer Martin Pakledinaz and wig designer Paul Huntley do their best to outwardly bring us the ‘real’ Callas – from someone who doesn’t look anything like her – but it is Daly’s stoicism concealing a reflective inner angst that really turns her into Maria and brings the performance to life.

For those who know little about Callas, McNally provides aria-like soliloquies where Callas relives her past triumphs and painful intimate scenes with Meneghini, 30 years her senior whom she did not love, and Onassis, whom she did. When she recounts the plot of Cherubini’s Medea that has the title character thrown over by a powerful man for a glamorous younger woman, you know exactly that she is remembering how Onassis left her for Jacqueline Kennedy. It is clear that when she is showing her students how parts should be portrayed, in her own mind she is back performing on stage, and the potency of the music to inspire her is plain to see. For these interludes, Thomas Lynch’s spartan set changes from a basic wood-panelled auditorium into a bare, unlit, stage with just a hint of the La Scala proscenium and throughout in the background we hear the artistry of the real ‘La Divina’.

In conclusion, Terrence McNally’s play presents a superb – if overlong – character study and with Stephen Wadsworth’s impeccable production, the outstanding musicianship of its young cast, and most of all in Tyne Daly’s energetic, gripping and unsentimental performance it will connect with audiences even if they are unfamiliar with Callas … or opera. How much we really learn about that ‘real’ Callas is a moot point, but McNally as Callas makes much of the German word Mut (courage) and Tyne Daly’s own performance – at this stage of her career – is courageous in its own way. Her concluding words on the sacrifices and rewards of art are rather heart-wrenching when we remember Callas’s all-too-brief life and a true warning to those aspiring towards a career on the stage. If fact when I recall many of the young singers I have encountered during my life, never does McNally make Callas says anything truer than ‘What these students lack in technique they make up in self-confidence.’

Jim Pritchard

Master Class continues at the Vaudeville Theatre until 28 April 2012. For further information visit the website www.masterclasstheplay.com..