Theatre Review – 'Master Class'

Posted by Alexander Hay

The triumph, paranoia, betrayal and regret of one of the greatest opera singers of all time- Maria Callas is evoked by American actress Tyne Daly in Terrence McNally’s 1995 play Masterclass, revived in a new production directed by Stephen Wadsworth at the Vaudeville Theatre play takes place in an auditorium at New York’s Julliard School in 1971, with Callas, now retired from the stage, sharing her knowledge of operatic performance with a succession of eager students and instructing them on what it takes to achieve the level of fame she has acquired. The first is naive, the second a cocky tenor with a powerful voice, and the third a no-nonsense, spiky mezzo-soprano. The three students’ efforts are witheringly put down by Callas’s acerbic manner, and as she instructs her pupils the shadows turn into vignettes from her past.

McNally here presents a deeply unflattering portrait of the operatic icon which is at times hard to believe. After attacking one of her students for her appearance, she asks another who is elegantly attired, “Are you going somewhere?” while a tenor singing Cavaradossi’s opening aria from Tosca, seems to have little idea of its dramatic context, and a third, rehearsing the letter scene from Verdi’s Macbeth, when asked to give it more dramatic impetus retorts “I’m not an actress. I’m just a singer!” Furthermore, the play has moments of unnecessary vulgarity, as when Callas says “an aria without a cabaletta is like sex without an orgasm!”

It is only later when we get glimpses of her doomed relationship with her lover Aristotle Onassis who dumped her for Jacqueline Kennedy, that we begin to develop an emotional empathy for Callas, and, after hearing authentic recordings of this opera diva in her prim, there is a real sense of pathos in this once blazing talent, now sadly past her best, who can no longer match the vocal abilities of the students she so fiercely criticises.

Imperious in a dark trouser suit, Tyne Daly (best known for her portrayal of detective Mary Beth Lacey in Cagney and Lacey) is a formidable stage presence as the egocentric operatic diva of popular legend, showing her fiery temperament and scathing sense of humour, as well as the sacrifice and heartache behind the artist. Jeremy Cohen and Naomi O’ Connell, herself a Juilliard alumnus, as her two most talented pupils, meanwhile deliver their arias with real passion.

By Laurence Green

Runs until April 28

Box office: 0844 8110057

Press: Premier PR 0207 292 8330

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Alexander Hay

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