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Master Class

Master Class

TERRENCE MCNALLY 1995

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

PLOT SUMMARY

CHARACTERS

THEMES

STYLE

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

CRITICISM

SOURCES

FURTHER READING

Terrence McNally’s Master Class was first produced by the Philadelphia Theatre Company in March 1995; it opened at the Golden Theatre in New York City in November of the same year. The play is based on a series of master classes given by the renowned opera singer Maria Callas at the Juilliard School of Music in New York in 1971 and 1972. Callas (1923-77), was the greatest dramatic soprano of her generation and also a controversial figure. Her restless and tempestuous personality often led her into disputes with opera managements and feuds with rival singers. However, she was adored by her fans and was the subject of constant media attention, including gossip about her jet-set life with the wealthy Greek shipowner Aristotle Onassis.

Although Master Class does delve into the triumphs and tragedies of Callas’s life, its primary focus is the art of dramatic singing. As McNally’s fictional version of Callas teaches her class, she explains to her students, two sopranos and a tenor, just what it takes to invest the music with real feeling, revealing as she does so how demanding the profession of opera singing is. She also reveals her own contradictory personality—proud and egotistical yet also vulnerable and self-pitying. In spite of all the flaws of its main character, however, Master Class, written by a man who has been a Callas fan since he was a teenager in high school, is a tribute to the dedication of a great singer and actress to her chosen art.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Terrence McNally was born in Saint Petersburg, Florida, on November 3, 1939, the son of Hubert Arthur and Dorothy Rapp McNally. McNally grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he was introduced to the theater at the age of seven when his parents took him to see Annie Get Your Gun. McNally graduated from high school in 1956, after which he attended Columbia University in New York. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he went to Mexico on a Henry Evans Traveling Fellowship. In Mexico, he wrote a one-act play, which he sent to the Actors Studio in New York, and in 1961, the Actors Studio offered him a job as stage manager. Later that year, McNally began touring the world as a private tutor for the children of John Steinbeck. When he returned to New York in 1962, he received the Stanley Award for his play This Side of the Door. After revisions, this play became And Things That Go Bump in the Night, which was produced in New York in 1965.

The play was a failure, and McNally briefly changed careers, becoming assistant editor for Columbia College Today. But he soon returned to playwriting, and he won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966. Over the next few years, McNally wrote a number of one-act plays, many of which were later produced off-Broadway or on television. The most successful of these was Next (1968), a comedy about the indignities suffered by an overweight man at a military induction center. Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? (1971) and Whiskey (1973) were less successful. Bad Habits {1974), made up of two one-act plays that satirize the treatment of the mentally ill, was a box-office success and won the Hull-Warriner Award and an Obie Award. The Ritz (1975) was also a box-office hit.

After the failure of Broadway, Broadway in 1978, it was six years before McNally returned to the Broadway stage as the creator of the book for the musical The Rink. His next play, The Lisbon Traviata, about a gay playwright and opera fan who attempts to revive his career and preserve his relationship with his lover, opened off-Broadway in 1985. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987), a drama about romance in the age of AIDS, was a critical and commercial success that was later adapted for film, with the screenplay written by McNally.

During the 1990s, McNally continued to write many plays, including Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), A Perfect Ganesh (1993), Love! Valour!

Compassion! (1993; winner of a Tony Award), Master Class (1995; also a Tony Award winner), and Dusk (1996). McNally also wrote the books for the musicals Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993) and Ragtime (1996), for both of which he received Tony awards, and the libretto for Dead Man Walking, an opera by Jake Heggie that premiered in San Francisco in 2000.

McNally has been a member of the Dramatists Guild Council since 1970 and its vice president since 1981.

PLOT SUMMARY

Act 1

As Master Class begins, the house lights are still up. An accompanist seats himself at a piano, after which Maria enters, wearing expensive clothes. She announces that there is to be no applause, because everyone is there to work. She makes some remarks about music as a discipline and says that the singer must serve the composer. In the first of many anecdotes about her life, she tells how, during World War II, she used to walk to the conservatory and back every day, even though she had no proper shoes.

She calls for the house lights to be turned off, and addresses some remarks to the accompanist, telling him that all performers must have a distinctive appearance. The accompanist becomes the butt of her somewhat cruel humor, and she pays tribute to her own teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo.

The first student, a young soprano named Sophie de Palma, enters. Maria criticizes her appearance and tells her to get over her nerves. Sophie says she is going to sing an aria from La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker), an opera by the Italian composer Bellini. It is a difficult aria in which the heroine, Amina, bemoans her loss of love.

After a bored stagehand brings out the footstool that Maria has requested, the accompanist plays the introduction to the aria, but Sophie only manages to sing the first word before Maria interrupts. She tells Sophie that she is not really listening to the music and shows her how to do it. Sophie tries again, but again Maria interrupts her after the first word. She tells the soprano that she is not feeling the true emotions of the character.

Following another interruption from the stagehand, who brings a cushion for Maria, Sophie sings again. Maria gives instructions as her student sings. Then Maria asks the singer to translate from the Italian, and Maria instructs her on the passion behind the words. She also draws her attention to the stage direction, which calls for the singer to fall on her knees, which Maria demonstrates. Then she talks Sophie through the emotions that are being expressed in the aria and berates Sophie for not having a pencil handy to take notes. Maria recalls that her teacher never had to ask her if she had a pencil and adds that that was during the war, when there were shortages of everything. Having a pencil meant going without an orange. She made notes on everything, so she could continue the tradition built up over centuries of opera. She berates Sophie for not knowing the names of all the great sopranos, such as Giudetta Pasta (1797-1865), Zinka Milanov (1906-89), Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981), and Lotte Lehmann (1888-1976).

Sophie begins to sing, and Maria hears in her mind her own performance as a recording of Maria Callas is played. Her mind goes back to her relationship with the wealthy Greek businessman Aristotle Onassis, whose companion she was for many years. As she reminisces, she imitates Onassis’s voice and his crude way of speaking. She has him say that he bought her with his wealth and that she gave him class, allowing him to acquire the respect that had not formerly been given to him. He tells her how wealthy he is and that she can have everything she wants. He wants her to stop her singing career and sing only for him, and he also asks her to have his child.

The aria ends, and on the recording the audience applauds. Maria thinks back to when she was on the stage at La Scala, the famous opera house in Milan. The last part of the aria, known as a caballeta, plays. It is also the end of the opera. She thinks back to an early disappointment, when another girl was chosen to sing the role of Amina at a student recital. Then she proudly relates how she, who was fat and ugly with bad skin, succeeded. She listens to the musical embellishments that the real Callas is singing on the recording and imagines the way the house lights used to come up while she was still singing. It thrills her to see everyone watching her; her triumph is complete as she listens to the ovation.

Then the lights come back up, and the setting is once more the master class. Maria thanks the soprano and leaves the stage.

Act 2

Maria speaks about the sacredness of her art. She notices that there is a bouquet of flowers for her on the piano, but she does not seem to appreciate them. The next student to come out is another young soprano, Sharon Graham, who is to sing one of Lady Macbeth’s arias from Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Maria tells her to go off the stage and re-enter in character. She also mentions that Sharon’s gown, although gorgeous, is inappropriate for the occasion. Sharon goes off and does not reappear. Maria realizes that she has hurt the student’s feelings but is unrepentant, saying that one cannot be sensitive in a tough business.

A tenor named Anthony Candolino is the next student. Maria asks him some questions, and he says his ambition is to be a great singer, rich and famous. He has chosen to sing an aria from Puccini’s opera Tosca. He sings the first phrase, and Maria stops him. She is dissatisfied with him, and after a short exchange, she tries to send him home, but he refuses to go. Maria relents and gives him instructions about voice technique and the expression of feeling. Anthony sings, and Maria is enraptured.

The next student is Sharon, who has decided to return, claiming that she has been sick. She starts Lady Macbeth’s aria once more, but again Maria is displeased. Maria takes over, entering as Lady Macbeth, reading a letter. She sings the first few lines, but her voice is cracked and terrible. Sharon takes over as Maria coaches and cajoles, urging her to get the feelings right, to sing with passion, and to take her cues from the music. After this, she sends Sharon backstage and then summons her again to repeat the scene. But this time, the audience hears not Sharon but a recording of Maria Callas singing the same piece in a live performance from 1952. Maria adds comments as she listens. Her mind goes back to her debut at La Scala, and she imitates the voice of her husband Battista Meneghini. Battista asks whether she loves him, but the question, which he asks often, only irritates her. After giving expression to her resentments and her past difficulties, she boasts that she is now beautiful and had thirty-seven curtain calls that night. Then she breaks some bad news to her husband: she will be marrying Onassis. She apologizes. Then she starts speaking to Onassis, saying that all the years she spent perfecting her art were for him, even though he dislikes opera. She tells him she is pregnant with his child. He bullies her into having an abortion. She tells him that she was fired at La Scala but that in the last performance, she was defiant. She kneels and asks him to marry her.

The recording of Callas ends. Maria tells Sharon she should work on some music more appropriate to her limitations. Sharon bursts into tears and lashes out at Maria, telling her she cannot sing anymore and is envious of anyone younger who can. She leaves.

Maria says that if she has been harsh, it is because she has been harsh with herself, but she has tried to communicate something of what she feels about what an artist and musician does. She concludes with advice to the singer: think of the expression of the words, good diction, and your own deep feelings. She gathers her things and leaves.

CHARACTERS

Accompanist

Manny the accompanist rehearses with Maria the day before the master class, but she cannot remember him since he is now wearing a different sweater. She tells him that he does not have a distinctive look and that he must acquire one. Manny is an admirer of Maria and does not react badly to her rather rough treatment of him in act one. In act two, he wins her praise.

Anthony Candolini

See Tenor

Sophie de Palma

See First Soprano

First Soprano

Sophie de Palma is Maria’s first student. She tries to sing an aria from Bellini’s La Sonnambula but does not get past the first word before Maria interrupts her. Maria tells her that she is not listening to the music; she is singing but not really feeling the emotions of the character. Maria’s relentless criticism, although meant to be constructive, makes Sophie cry. Maria even tells her that her skirt is too short.

Sharon Graham

See Second Soprano

Maria

Maria is a woman of deep feeling and passion who has had many triumphs and tragedies in her life. Having suffered greatly, she believes this is the key to capturing the tragic emotions of the characters whose roles she sings. She is deeply proud of her achievements because through hard work and persistence she was able to overcome many obstacles. Even as a young woman during World War II, she did not allow hunger and other adversities to interfere with her studies. Her recollection of how a fat and ugly (in her own estimation) adolescent later became a beautiful woman on the stage at La Scala is tinged with pride and pain. There is also a hint of self-pity when she recalls that no one cared about the times she cried herself to sleep at night. It was only her performance on stage that people cared about. Totally dedicated to her art, Maria views a performance as a struggle for domination. She regards the audience as an enemy that she must conquer; she must win listeners over by convincing them that she is right in her singing and in her interpretation of the role. She believes that her musical art makes a difference in the world if practiced with dedication.

Maria reveals herself as a courageous, restless, tempestuous woman, much as the real-life Maria Callas was. Her anecdotes show that she was always ready to face her enemies, to relish her triumphs, and even to turn her disasters into triumphs. In her conduction of the master class, which she takes as seriously as her own performances, she is totally confident, even arrogant, regarding the rightness of her opinions about acting and singing. She is therefore an intimidating presence for the young students who have come to learn from her. She can be domineering and contemptuous, with an acerbic, mocking sense of humor. She is impatient with interruptions, browbeating the stagehand and using the accompanist as the butt of her humor. She is also ruthless in her appraisal of her students’ efforts. Although she is sincere in wanting to pass on her knowledge, she lacks patience, humility, and grace. She tells her students to forget about her presence, while making it impossible for them to do so. She is also always ready to disparage other singers, and she has withering put-downs for some of the great figures of the operatic world, such as Joan Sutherland, Renata Scotto, and Zinka Milanov.

Second Soprano

Sharon Graham is Maria’s second student, who comes on in act two. She elects to sing Lady Macbeth’s entrance aria, known as the Letter Scene. Maria tells her that her beautiful gown is inappropriate for the occasion and then sends her off to make a more forceful entrance. But Sharon does not return, and Maria assumes that she has hurt her feelings. Later, Sharon does return, with the excuse that she was taken ill. She begins reading the text of the letter and then starts on the aria, as Maria aggressively coaches her. But when Maria tells her that she should attempt something less difficult, Sharon bursts into tears and says that she does not like Maria, adding that Maria can no longer sing and is envious of anyone who is young and can.

Stagehand

The stagehand, dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt, brings Maria a footstool and later a cushion. He is clearly uninterested in his work, and he arouses Maria’s contempt.

Tenor

Anthony Candolini is the student tenor who has a session with Maria in act two. He has two music degrees and has performed some minor roles. His ambition is to be a great singer and to become rich and famous. He sings an aria from Puccini’s Tosca, and after some coaching from Maria he wins her enthusiastic approval.

Manny Weinstock

See Accompanist

THEMES

Creating Art

Although the play touches on many of the main events of Maria Callas’s life, it is not in essence a biographical portrait. Rather, it is an exploration of the nature of artistic creation, as applied to operatic singing and acting. Maria makes clear that art is serious business that cannot be done by half measures; it demands total commitment on the part of the singer/actress. Being an opera singer can never be an easy career; the singer must give everything to the demands of her craft. This means intense discipline over a lifetime.

In addition to total commitment, the singer must be able to call on resources within herself that will enable her to fully inhabit whatever role she is playing. Since the essence of opera is raw emotion, she must be able to fully experience all the emotions felt by the character—joy, sadness, love, hate, jealousy, rage. It is not enough merely to sing the words and get the notes right. “It’s not a note we’re after here,” says Maria to her student Sophie, “It’s a stab of pain.”

Since Maria emphasizes again and again that her art consists not only of vocal technique but of “Feeling, feeling, feeling,” the question arises of how an artist can capture the feeling, say, of a character like Amina in La Sonnambula, who has lost the man she loves. Maria makes clear that the singer must have some life experience behind her before she can successfully create the role. She must have experienced the same emotions herself, in her own circumstances. Maria constantly nags the students about whether they really know what they are singing about, and she is not inquiring merely about their knowledge of Italian. She asks Sophie whether she has ever had her heart broken, as Amina has, because no one to whom this experience is foreign could express the passion required in the role.

It is the same when Maria coaches Sharon. Is there anything, Maria quizzes her, she would kill for—a man, perhaps, or a career? She asks because that is exactly what Lady Macbeth is contemplating in the aria that Sharon is about to sing. If Sharon has not felt such desire herself, how can she sing about it? When Sharon replies that she has never really thought about such matters, Maria says that is because she is young. Life will eventually teach her, although in Maria’s view, art is even harder to master than life. The point Maria wishes to make is that the singer must reach down into the depths of her psyche to access those times in her life when she felt similar emotions. “You have to listen to something in yourself to sing this difficult music,” she tells Sharon. What she is alluding to, whether consciously or not, is a concept developed by acting teacher Lee Strasberg, known as “emotional memory,” based on the work of Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) and his “method” system of acting. The technique of emotional memory focuses on recalling the sensory atmosphere of a past activity in order to recapture the emotion associated with it. That recovered emotion can then be used by the actor as the equivalent of the emotion being experienced by the character in the play. This is one reason why, for example, Maria sets the scene of the tenor’s aria in praise of Tosca, telling him that it is ten o’clock on a beautiful spring morning and that he made love all night to Tosca, the most beautiful woman in Rome. When the tenor points out that the score says nothing about such things, Maria replies, “It should say it in your imagination. Otherwise you have notes, nothing but notes.”

At the heart of this is a paradox. By digging deeper into herself, the singer can in fact transcend herself. The artistic imagination transforms the singer into a kind of spiritual medium who can identify absolutely with the fictional character she is portraying. “When I sang Medea I could feel the stones of Epidaurus beneath the wooden floorboards at La Scala,” says Maria. She found for herself a “direct line” to the character, as if the woman she was portraying were a real person. It is not a matter of acting, a word that Maria dislikes, but of being. (Medea is an opera by Italian composer Luigi Cherubini based on a play by the Greek dramatist Euripides. Callas was famous for her performances as Medea.)

TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Near the end of the play, Sharon says to Maria, “I don’t like you.” What is your reaction to Maria? Do you like her or dislike her? Is she a good teacher or is her manner too harsh?
  • Describe a moment in theater, opera, musical, or film in which you have been emotionally moved by the performance of a particular actor or singer. Who was the performer, and how did he or she create the effect that moved you?
  • Music has power to touch the emotions in ways that the spoken word cannot. Why should this be so? Analyze some music that you know well, either instrumental or vocal, and try to account for why it has the effects it does. Describe some of the many effects music can have on people. Why for many centuries did soldiers march into battle to the sound of music?
  • Maria Callas’s life was full of emotional turmoil. Is there a link between suffering and creativity? If not, why have people often thought that there is? In what ways is the artist different from other men and women? What are the essential qualities that a creative artist, whether musician, singer, painter, or writer, must have?

STYLE

Structure

Both acts share the same basic structure. In its essentials, act one consists of Maria’s interaction with the first student, the soprano Sophie de Palma, followed by a long monologue in which Maria recalls events from her life. In the original New York production, Zoe Caldwell, who played Maria, stood alone in the light on a darkened stage for this reminiscence, which includes her relationship with Aristotle Onassis, during which he asks her to bear his child, and one of her great triumphs at La Scala. As La Scala is recalled, the interior of the famous opera house is projected on the back of the stage. The entire reminiscence is accompanied by a recording of the historical Maria Callas singing the same aria (Amina’s from La Sonnambula) that Sophie has been attempting. Act two contains Maria’s session with the second young soprano, Sharon Graham, which is split into two sections, before and after her session with the tenor, Anthony Candolino. This act reaches its climax with the same device that was used in act one. It is an even longer monologue this time, as Maria imagines herself in an earlier period of her life, in her first marriage, then again with Onassis, and finally once more at La Scala, although in different circumstances. Continuing the parallelism with act one, she recalls how she became pregnant with Onassis’s child (just as he had asked her to in act one). The final parallel is that, as in act one, a recording of Callas plays, and again she is singing the same aria (Lady Macbeth’s) that the student had been attempting. The transition is effected through a change in lighting.

The Leading Role

Since the play is virtually a one-woman show, with the other characters brought in mostly as foils so that Maria can reveal her artistic personality and her views about singing and acting, the success of the production rests on the ability of the actress who plays Maria to capture the imperious, querulous, and tragic essence of the character. Not only this, she also needs to impersonate convincingly various figures from Maria’s life, such as her first husband, her lover Onassis, and her teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo. The actress must also be able to speak the small amount of Italian in the play in a convincing and accurate manner.

Music

Obviously, in a play about a legendary opera diva, music is of central importance. Not only are two Callas recordings played, but the tenor and soprano sing arias on stage (the latter does not complete hers). The centrality of singing, and the tragedy of Callas, whose voice deserted her at a comparatively young age, is forcefully made in the only line of music that Maria herself sings in the entire play. This comes midway through act two, and it is the opening of Lady Macbeth’s aria, after she has read the letter. The stage directions read, “What comes out is a cracked and broken thing. A voice in ruins. It is a terrible moment.” The audience is thus given a contrast to the glorious voice on the recordings and so becomes aware of its fragility—as well as the tragic vulnerability of the character on stage to whom the voice belongs.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Maria Callas

Maria Callas was by common consent the greatest dramatic soprano of her generation, excelling in the Italian bel canto repertoire. She had a mesmerizing stage presence, and although many regarded her voice as flawed, she could communicate intensity and emotion as no other soprano could. Her personal life was scarcely less dramatic than the operatic roles she played, and there were well publicized incidents involving her legendary fiery temperament, her feuds with opera managements, her rivalries with other singers, and her love affairs.

Callas was born in New York in 1923. She was American by birth and early upbringing, but her parents were Greek, and in 1937 she and her mother left the United States for Greece. Callas was also Italian by virtue of her marriage to Giovanni Battista Meneghini, which lasted from 1949 to 1959.

In Greece, Callas became a pupil of the soprano Elvira de Hidalgo at the Athens Conservatory. She made her operatic debut as Tosca at the Athens Opera in 1941, and she took on other roles over the next three years. In 1945, Callas returned to New York, where she was engaged by Giovanni Zenatello for Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda at Verona in 1947. This appearance was in effect the beginning of Callas’s career, and in Italy she was soon singing major roles in operas by Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini. Gradually, under the guidance of Italian conductor Tullio Serafin, she began to concentrate on earlier Italian opera. She made a name for herself singing Violetta in La Traviata, Gilda in Rigoletto, Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, Amina in La Sonnambula, and Norma in Bellini’s opera of that name, as well as in Tosca. She made her debut at La Scala in Aida in 1950; her first appearances in London (1952), Chicago (1954), and New York (1956) were in Norma.

By this time, Callas was world famous and had become an extremely controversial figure, known for her great triumphs on the stage but also for her explosive, sometimes quarrelsome personality and her backstage disputes. She was the center of media attention wherever she went, and her rivalry with fellow soprano Renata Tebaldi kept the gossip columnists busy. Callas once said that the difference between her and Tebaldi was the difference between champagne and Coca-Cola. She was known for withdrawing from performances at the last minute, and on many occasions there were factions of the audience that were openly hostile to her. Callas caused one of the greatest scandals in operatic history in January 1958, when she attempted to sing Norma in Rome while suffering from bronchitis. In the audience were the Italian president and other dignitaries. Heckled by the audience, Callas struggled through the first act and then abandoned her performance. The debacle produced an avalanche of negative publicity.

In 1959, Callas left her elderly husband for Aristotle Onassis, but in the mid-1960s Onassis abandoned her for Jacqueline Kennedy, whom he married in 1968.

Troubled by difficulties with her voice, Callas withdrew gradually from the operatic stage. She gave her final performance as Tosca at Covent Garden in 1965. In 1971-72, she gave a series of master classes in New York, and in 1973 and 1974 she emerged from retirement to make a concert tour with her former colleague, Giuseppe di Stefano.

Callas died in Paris in 1977 at the age of fifty-three.

Callas’s Master Classes at Juilliard

Callas conducted twenty-three two-hour opera master classes at the Juilliard School of Music in New York from October 1971 to March 1972. She had not sung in public for six years, and her voice was not the great instrument it once had been. Doing the master classes was a way of overcoming her terror of performing by incorporating singing as part of her teaching.

There were twenty-five students in the master class and a paying audience that included some of the great names in opera. Callas did not allow applause from the audience, saying on one occasion (captured in the play), “None of that. We are here to work.” Callas scholar John Ardoin writes in “Callas and the Juilliard Master Classes,” “And work she did—serious concentrated, dedicated work that placed her, her voice, her personality, and her ideas squarely at the service of her students.... This was no ego trip.” In the real-life master class, Callas did not offer insulting comments about other singers or indulge in personal reminiscences or displays of ill temper, as she does in McNally’s play, although she did on one occasion tell a student that she was inappropriately dressed. However, much of the advice she gave conformed to the sentiments McNally gives her in Master Class. Arianna Stassinopoulos, in her biography of the singer, reports that Callas said to a soprano who had just sung one of Gilda’s arias from Verdi’s Rigoletto, “Gilda is a passionate girl, you know; you must convey to the audience all her palpitating emotion before you even begin to sing.” Only one of the three arias that figure in Master Class was on Callas’s syllabus at Juilliard, and that was the tenor aria from Tosca. In the play, Maria says she never really listened to that aria, but the master class shows clearly that the real-life Callas knew it extremely well.

Callas was always well prepared for her class, having sung earlier in the day, with her accompanist, all the arias that were to be covered in the session. Sometimes she would sing during the class. On some days, the voice was only a shadow of what it had been, but (unlike the dramatic moment in the play when Maria’s voice fails her), Callas would simply say, as Ardoin reports, “I’m not in voice today” and move on without fuss. At other times, her voice would attain its characteristic splendor.

At her last class, Callas said good-bye in almost exactly the words that McNally gives her in the final paragraph of her last speech in Master Class. In his early version of the script in 1994, the entire farewell speech was virtually word for word what Callas had said, but McNally altered the speech in his revisions.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Master Class was a resounding commercial success. It ran from November 1995 to June 1997 on Broadway, recording over six hundred performances. By 1997, there also had been about forty productions abroad, including those in Argentina, Estonia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Hungary, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Turkey.

Zoe Caldwell received high praise for her performance as Callas, whom she played from opening night until June 28, 1996, and for which she won a Tony Award. Brad Leithauser, in Time, wrote that

“you don’t doubt that if [Caldwell] could only transfer what’s inside her to her pupils, they would sing like angels.” However, Caldwell’s strong performance tended to obscure, according to Leithauser, the shortcomings of the play. He questioned the division of the play into two acts, since “the second act doesn’t deepen, it merely extends.” He also declared that McNally’s attempt to “drive [the play] toward an old-fashioned theatrical climax (one of the students ultimately mutinies against Callas’ bullying) feels contrived.” These alleged shortcomings, however, did not stop the play from winning the number six slot in Time’s end of year list of the best plays of 1995.

Nancy Franklin in the New Yorker also remarked on Caldwell’s outstanding performance (“Caldwell plays Callas with... steely force and conviction”) but felt that the play did not serve the historical Callas well. She argued that the recordings available of Callas’s master classes make it clear that “as a teacher Callas was a consummate professional.... she was unfailingly attentive to her students, and didn’t use the audience as a foil for her egomania,” unlike the Callas in the play. Franklin’s conclusion was that because of McNally’s desire to present Callas as an “artistic personality”—complete with haughty, sardonic manner—and to discover what it was in Callas that so moved her audiences, the play “says more about its author than about its subject.... Master Class doesn’t get us any closer to Callas.”

When Patti Lupone took over from Caldwell on Broadway in the summer of 1996, Vincent Canby, reviewing the production for the New York Times, commented that the play was more “complex and difficult than it first seemed.” He was referring to the way Master Class goes back and forth between Callas’s memories and her interactions with her students. Canby described the Callas of the play as “a spectacular pousse-cafe of gallantry, [b———]iness, dedication and impatience with the second-rate.” Lupone, who played the original title role in the musical Evita, did not quite convince Canby with her performance, which he described as possessing “more power than control”:

Under Leonard Foglia’s direction, she makes all the right moves, but she doesn’t execute them with the innate grace of the woman who was possibly the twentieth century’s most dazzling opera star. There’s something slightly crude about this Callas when she should be cleanly, imperially demanding.

Later actresses who have taken on the role of Callas include Faye Dunaway, who plays Callas in the film version of the play. Dunaway appeared in a touring production of Master Class at the Shubert Performing Arts Center in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1997. Alvin Klein, reviewing the production for the New York Times, found some weak spots in her interpretation of the role and argued that she did not own it as completely as Caldwell and Lupone had. He pointed in particular to her veiling of her emotions in the crucial section when the tenor moves Callas deeply with his rendition of an aria from Puccini’s Tosca: “Ms. Dunaway’s reaction to his splendid performance is guarded. She masks her tears, turning away from the audience, after he leaves.” Although Klein acknowledged that there may be some merits to the choice Dunaway made, he adds, “yet Ms. Dunaway’s reserve narrows the performance and works against much of the role as Mr. McNally crafted it.” Since Klein regarded the play as “little more than a sketch for an actress of largesse to fill in with heartbreak and transcendence,” he claimed that a less than perfect performance in the leading role merely exposed the relative weakness of the script.

WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • McNally’s play Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994) arose from McNally’s desire to write about what it was like to be a gay man in America in the 1990s. The play received laudatory reviews and won several awards, including a Tony Award for best play.
  • Greek Fire: The Story of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis (2001), by Nicholas Gage, sympathetically documents the tempestuous nine-year affair between Callas and the Greek shipping tycoon. Relevant for students of Master Class is Gage’s claim that Callas gave birth to Onassis’s son in 1960 and that the baby died within hours.
  • Maria Callas: An Intimate Biography (2001), by Anne Edwards, is the latest of more than thirty biographies of Callas. Edwards is at pains to search for the facts behind all the myths about Callas, and she produces evidence to refute Gage’s assertion in Greek Fire that Callas had a son by Onassis. In addition to the riveting tale of Callas’s ultimately tragic life, Edwards also provides many descriptions of opera plots, costumes, and sceneries.
  • Diva: Great Sopranos and Mezzos Discuss Their Art (1991), by Helena Matheopoulos, covers twenty-six leading female opera singers, who discuss topics such as their vocal development, the roles for which they are best known, and their personal lives. Many offer advice to young singers.

CRITICISM

Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses some outstanding moments in Maria Callas’s singing that have been captured on audio and videotape and how these reflect the themes of Master Class. He also discusses the changes Callas brought to opera singing.

Playwright McNally is a lifelong fan of Maria Callas. He first heard her when he was a fifteen-year-old high school student in Texas in 1953. The recording was of Callas singing in Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor, and McNally felt that she was singing just for him. He later wrote, “Listening to Callas is not a passive experience. It is a conversation with her and finally, ourselves.... She tells us her secrets—her pains, her joys—and we tell her ours right back” (quoted by John Ardoin, author of “Callas and the Juilliard Master Classes,” in Terrence McNally: A Casebook).

McNally was fortunate enough to have heard Callas sing live twenty-five to thirty times, something that few other people in the United States can match. Callas’s career was short, and not many people younger than fifty are likely to have heard her live on the operatic stage, since her last performance, as Tosca at London’s Covent Garden, was in July 1965. (Many determined operagoers waited in line for five nights to get tickets.) Her last performance in the United States was at New York’s Metropolitan Opera a few months earlier. At the Met, the audience gave Callas a tumultuous reception, and the long bouts of applause at her entrance and during the acts extended the performance an hour longer than scheduled. “The stage presence shown by Callas in her performance would have raised the hackles on a deaf man” was only one among the torrent of accolades that the critics bestowed on her in the morning newspapers the following day (quoted by Arianna Stassinopoulos in her Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend).

However, despite the legendary status Callas attained in her lifetime, for today’s reader or playgoer who has little knowledge of opera, the name

“SO GREAT WAS CALLAS’S IMPACT THAT SCHOLARS ROUTINELY REFER TO THE ‘CALLAS REVOLUTION’ WHEN THEY DISCUSS THE CHANGES THAT SHE BROUGHT TO OPERA SINGING.”

Maria Callas may be scarcely more than a name from the distant past. Perhaps for the non-opera fan, the most vivid moments that capture what Callas meant and still means to many people occur in the 1993 film Philadelphia, for which Tom Hanks won an Oscar. Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer who has AIDS and who is illegally fired from his job because of it. He fights back against the law firm as he also battles the deadly disease. In a key scene Andy listens at home, with his lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), to a 1954 recording of Callas singing Maddalena’s aria, “La Mamma Morta,” from Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chenier. Andy, whose favorite aria this is, is transported in ecstasy and pain as Callas sings the story of Maddalena’s tragic life. Translating the words over her voice as he listens, he asks Joe, “Can you hear the heartache in her voice? Can you feel it, Joe?” Joe, who knows nothing of opera and is stunned by what is going on, nods his head earnestly. The aria reaches its climax when Maddalena tells how Love came to her and urged her, in spite of her despair, to live: “Sorridi espera! lo son l’amore!... lo son divino” (“Smile and hope! I am Love!... I am divine”). As Callas’s top notes ring out in affirmation and triumph—an ecstasy emerging from bitterest pain—Andy feels the same inspiration, ready heroically to affirm life even as he faces a cruel death. It is Callas’s disembodied voice that creates the intense drama of this scene, which is so pivotal to the movie. It perfectly illustrates McNally’s comment quoted above, to which he added an imaginary snatch of dialogue between diva and devotee: “‘I have felt such despair and happiness,’ Callas confesses. ‘So have I, so have I,’ we answer.” McNally suggests that what we see and hear in the characters that Callas brings to such vivid life is a reflection of ourselves, of our own hopes and disappointments, sorrows and joys, just as the aria from Andrea Chenier mirrors the deepest emotions of Andy in Philadelphia.

It is fortunate that all the great roles Callas sung have been preserved on audio recordings so that present and future generations will be able to enjoy and learn from her. However, many people who heard her sing in person say that audio recordings do not convey everything that Callas brought to the roles. In addition to her expressive voice, with its distinctive dark timbre, she was also a dramatic actress of astonishing gifts. She had an electrifying stage presence, as this comment by London critic Bernard Levin (quoted in Nigel Douglas’s book, More Legendary Voices) makes clear: “We all tingled when she entered as though we had touched a live wire.”

Although Callas’s career ended before the age of video had fully arrived, several of her performances have been preserved on videotape in black and white. Although they cannot convey the full force of what it must have been like to hear and see her in the flesh, they do preserve something of Callas’s magnetic presence, the passion and emotional power she brought to her singing, and the adoration she evoked from her fans. Two of the videos are concert performances given in Hamburg, one in 1959, in which she sings the letter-reading aria from Verdi’s Macbeth that is featured in Master Class, and the other in 1962. Two of the arias in that 1962 video recording (which is still commercially available) perfectly illustrate the themes of Master Class that Maria labors to instill in her students: they must fully inhabit the roles they are singing, they must summon up from somewhere within themselves the emotions that are required, they must become the characters they are representing.

In the videotape from Hamburg on that long-ago night in 1962, Callas makes her entrance with dignity and basks in the applause, smiling radiantly and offering a regal wave of the hand. Not for nothing does Maria in Master Class instruct Sharon Graham to make a real entrance, not just come out on stage: “You’re on a stage. Use it. Own it. This is opera, not a voice recital. Anyone can stand there and sing. An artist enters and is.” In the Hamburg recording, Callas then accepts a rose from a middle-aged admirer, breaks off the stem, and with a spontaneous flourish inserts the flower into her cleavage. (“Never miss an opportunity to theatricalize,” says Maria in Master Class.) Callas is now fully the diva, lapping up the adoration of her fans. But then it is time for business. As the orchestra begins the introduction to “Pleurez, mes yieux,” Chimene’s aria from act 3 of Jules Massenet’s opera Le Cid, Callas closes her eyes, and a contemplative look appears on her face. It is as if we are watching the moment of metamorphosis, in which the diva turns into the character Chimene (a transition that is never seen in the opera house, since the singer is in character all the time she is on stage). Callas then opens her eyes and glances upwards. Now she is her character, and is ready to expresses the conflict in Chimene’s mind and heart: the man she is in love with is also the man who killed her father, and she knows that whatever happens in the future, there will be great sorrow for her. Callas closes her eyes again, tilting her head to the left as an expression of anguish crosses her face. She has taken her cue from the agitation that appears in the music. It is just as Maria in Master Class urges her students: listen to the music, because the music tells the singer all she needs to know. And as Callas begins to sing the aria, one senses that nothing in that concert hall exists for her at that moment other than the music and the emotions that it summons forth in her. “Very few people can weep in song,” Maria says to her student Sophie, and this aria reminds us that Callas was one of them.

It is a similar story for the final aria on this recording, “O don fatale,” from Verdi’s Don Carlos. (The aria is mentioned in passing in Master Class.) Callas’s singing here is so dramatic that it is likely to give anyone goosebumps. There is little buildup—a moment of inner contemplation, a sudden glance upward like a stab of pain or a moment of shock, and then Callas tears into the aria, with all its twists and turns of deeply felt emotion, holding nothing back. It is a testament to her fictional counterpart in Master Class, who says over and over that the singer must feel the music she is singing: her art is all about “Feeling, feeling, feeling.”

It is also, of course, about technique. All the passionate intensity in the world is of no use unless it can be channeled through the confines of the art form in which it is expressed. As Callas herself said in one of her real-life master classes, advising a student to study a difficult aria meticulously and slowly, “Do not try to add exterior passion until you are confident with the aria’s internal demands. In opera, passion without intellect is no good; you will be a wild animal and not an artist” (quoted in John Ardoin’s Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes). No one who studies the transcripts of Callas’s master classes could fail to appreciate her deep knowledge of the minutiae of the vocal music, even in arias for voices other than soprano.

It was this combination of technical mastery, emotional expressiveness, and dramatic skill that made Callas the preeminent artist she was. Although vocal technique was something that Callas, throughout her life a perfectionist, labored hard to perfect—her voice had flaws that she never succeeded in eradicating—the dramatic, expressive power that could so electrify an audience seemed to be a natural ability. As Ardoin puts it in The Callas Legacy, “Callas seemed incapable of being inexpressive; even a simple scale sung by her implied a dramatic attitude or feeling. This capacity to communicate was something she was born with.”

So great was Callas’s impact that scholars routinely refer to the “Callas revolution” when they discuss the changes that she brought to opera singing. No longer was the Italian bel canto (literally “beautiful singing”) repertoire, such as Bellini’s Norma or Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, merely an opportunity for a beautiful vocal performance, with dramatic considerations secondary. Callas interpreted the roles with such feeling and dramatic intensity that the heroines of these operas became believable characters. Since her career, which spanned the 1950s and early 1960s, came at a time when the increasing popularity of film and television was beginning to condition audiences to expect greater realism from operatic performances, Callas played a vital role in maintaining opera as a viable form of entertainment.

There is no doubt also that Callas paid a price for her gifts. The underlying suggestion in Master Class is that the artist, as a consequence of being able to feel deeply, must also suffer deeply. She must know not only the heights of human experience but also its depths, the extremes of anger, grief, despair, and isolation. Callas in her personal life knew all these emotions intimately. It is to her lasting credit that she was able to harness her pain and send it out in the service of great art.

Source : Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Master Class, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Cary M. Mazer

In the following essay, Mazer examines how the character of Maria Callas in Master Class evinces the paradoxical nature of the diva as performer and self.

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Source : Cary M. Mazer, “Master Class and the Paradox of the Diva,” in Terrence McNally: A Casebook, edited by Toby Silverman Zinman, Garland Publishing, 1997, pp. 165-80.

SOURCES

Ardoin, John, “Callas and the Juilliard Master Classes,” in Terrence McNally: A Casebook, edited by Toby Silverman Zinman, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997, pp. 157-63.

———, Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes, Amadeus Press, 1998, p. 39.

———, The Callas Legacy: A Biography of a Career, rev. ed., Charles Scribner’s Sons, p. 210.

Canby, Vincent, “Patti LuPone’s Arrival Changes the Effect of McNally’s Script,” in the New York Times, July 26, 1996, Section C, Column 1, p. 3.

Douglas, Nigel, More Legendary Voices, Andre Deutsch, 1990, p. 22.

Franklin, Nancy, “Goddesses,” in the New Yorker, November 27, 1995, pp. 109-11.

Gurewitsch, Matthew, “Maria, Not Callas,” in Atlantic Monthly, October 1997, pp. 102-07.

Klein, Alvin, “The Teacher as Star of the Class,” in the New York Times, October 19, 1997, Section 14CN, Column 4, p. 8.

Leithauser, Brad, “Legends of the Fall” in Time, November 20,1995, p. 121.

Stassinopoulos, Arianna, Maria Callas: The Woman behind the Legend, Simon and Schuster, 1981, pp. 268, 314.

FURTHER READING

Brustein, Robert, “Master Class,” in the New Republic,

February 5, 1996, pp. 27-28.

Brustein’s review was one of the few negative reviews of the play. Brustein regards it as capably written, but forgettable, although it does have some value as a tribute to Callas.

Christianssen, Rupert, Prima Donna, Pimlico, 1995, pp. 266-98.

Calling Callas a “naïve genius,” Christianssen analyzes the Callas revolution in terms of the singing tradition she inherited, the changes she wrought, and her influence on sopranos who followed.

Kroll, Jack, “Master Class,” in Newsweek, November 13, 1995, p. 85.

Kroll’s review is a laudatory review that describes the play as a profile in courage, with Zoe Caldwell, as Callas, putting on a virtuoso performance to remember.

Torrens, James S., “Master Class,” in America, February 17, 1996, p. 30.

Another review that is full of praise for what Torrens calls the most exciting play of the Broadway season. McNally’s love of opera finds its perfect vehicle.

Zinman, Toby Silverman, ed., Terrence McNally: A Casebook, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.

This text contains interviews with Zoe Caldwell and McNally, as well as Cary M. Mazer’s article, “Master Class and the Paradox of the Diva,” in which he discusses what he sees as paradoxes and contradictions in what Maria teaches her students.

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