Terrence McNally has had some ups and downs in his long and distinguished career but Master Class, which won the Best Play Tony in 1996, is certainly one of the high points. The play is based on real eventsin 1971 Maria Callas gave a series of master classes at the Julliard School in New York Cityand McNally uses this historical fact to delve deeply into not only Callas's career and psyche but also into what it means to be an artist and the nature of grand opera itself. For the record, those present at the master classes say they were nothing like what is presented in this play, so Master Class should be valued for what it is, an artistic creation rather historical documentation of actual events.
The play's setup is simplicity itself. Maria Callas is teaching a master class in opera and three studentstwo sopranos and a tenorappear onstage to be coached, criticized and at times complimented on their interpretations of classic roles. There's clearly more on the agenda than the student performances, however: as the students sing, Callas retreats into reveries in which she recalls the triumphs and tragedies of her career which, by the time of the Julliard master classes, was largely over.
Callas is one of major figures (if not the major figure) in 20th century opera, noted as much for her psychological penetration of roles as the distinctive quality of her voice. However, by 1971 she had already been retired from the stage for six years and had also suffered several setbacks outside the world of opera: her lover Aristotle Onassis left her for Jacqueline Kennedy and her only venture into a non-operatic acting role, as the title character in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1969 film Medea, was not met with universal acclaim. The portrait of Callas presented in this play is of a former star who has not accepted her decline gracefully and has a tendency to take it out on the students while always claiming that her only purpose is to uphold the highest standards of her art.
McNally establishes a progression among the students who sing for Callas. The first, Sophie De Palma (Jessica Tilghman), is nervous, underprepared to the point of straining our suspension of disbelief (she hasn't even bothered to learn the meaning of the notations in her score) and a bit silly, making her an easy target for Callas's barbs. Sophie barely gets to sing a note, due to Callas's constant interruptions, and is the target of a criticism about her dress, made with the sole purpose of making her more self-conscious than she already is.
The second student (or "victim" as Callas repeatedly calls them in a "joking but not really" tone), Tony Candolino (Jon Garrett), is partly a figure of fun (he's a great admirer of Mario Lanza and having him declare this proudly to Maria Callas once again strains the credibility meter) but is also redeemed by his obvious love for music and his refusal to let Callas's bullying throw him off his game. Tony insists on singing his aria and performs so beautifully that Callas is moved to tears, showing that her musical heart is still beating under the protective armor she has adopted. Both actors capture the spirit of their somewhat thankless roles and Garrett shows off his classically trained voice to good effect.
The third student role is a plum, second only to the role of Callas herself. Sharon (Leslie Sikes), although initially intimidated by Callas (a fierce attack drives her to the ladies' room with an attack of vomiting), comes back to stand up to her. She triumphs with her singing and also finds the courage to call out a teacher who is more concerned with indulging her own psychological problems than with helping the students achieve their best performances. Sharon's transformation from intimidated supplicant to determined young artist, and the correspondent unmasking of Callas, is the crux of the play. The impact seems a bit blunted in the Stray Dog performance, although McNally certainly did not make their task easier by burying this crucial metamorphosis so late in his play.
It takes a brave woman to play "La Divina" on stage but Lavonne Byers is more than up to the task. She convincingly cycles through Callas's many moods: one minute she's complaining about the fact that she wasn't supplied with a footstool and a cushion, while the next she's recalling her sometimes abusive relationship with Onassis or the days when she was the most acclaimed singer in the world. This is a difficult role because so much of it is written as monologue, but Byers holds our attention throughout and manages the difficult balance between the crusty present-time Callas (who keeps berating the students and sometimes the audience about how they aren't willing to sacrifice for their art) with the vulnerable Callas lost in recollections of her past.
Master Class is a serious play but also a very funny one. Maria Callas as imagined by Terrence McNally is given to what Southerners would call "bless her heart" comments which insult someone while pretending to do the opposite. So Callas "sympathizes" with rival Joan Sutherland, describing her as a "12-foot Lucia di Lammermoor" then asking rhetorically, "What was she to do? Stoop her way through the role?" Renata Scotto, Beverly Sills and others come in for similar treatment, reminding you that however much Callas might claim it was all about the art, it was also very personal.
Martin Fox provides able support as Manny Weinstock, the accompanist who is the recipient of Callas's famous remark, "It's important to have a look" (he doesn't). Jay V. Hall also fills the bill as the stage manager who may be the only person in the auditorium not wowed by Maria Callas.
No one is credited for set design for Master Class but it is both simple and effective: an almost bare stage with a piano, a chair and a table plus a black backdrop upon which, during one of Callas's reveries, an image of the famous La Scala opera house in Milan is projected.