Terrence McNally’s 1996 Tony Award®-winning Best Play about Maria Callas (Tyne Daly) takes us to one of Callas’s famous master classes, where, late in her career, she dares the next generation to make the same sacrifices and rise to the same heights that made her the most celebrated, the most reviled and the most controversial singer of her time.
In 1970-1971 the great Greek American soprano Maria Callas taught a series of open classes at The Juilliard School. In 1994-1995, Terrence McNally wrote Master Class, which reimagines a Callas class, riffs on the events of her life, and offers a remarkable portrait of the diva. Her career on the operatic stage had ended when she was barely in her thirties. It had lasted a short, sensation-filled 20 years, during which time she went from being an overweight singer with undoubted dramatic power (but an old-fashioned stage manner) to becoming one of the world’s most beautiful, alluring, chic, and famous women and a singing actress coaxed by a great film director (Luchino Visconti) to a willowy naturalness and subtlety. She slimmed to supermodel litheness, left the husband who had helped build her superstar career (Battista Meneghini), and fell in love with one of the world’s wealthiest tycoons (Aristotle Onassis), sidelining her work and career for love, only to lose him to another glamorous star (Jacqueline Kennedy). Callas settled in Paris, where – after making a film, leading the Juilliard classes, and venturing out of retirement for a high-profile but artistically problematic concert tour – she died suddenly at 52.
She was almost never not a legend. Her voice, a complicated, throbbing, troubled sound, was controversial from the start, and although she was a truly great vocal technician, there were areas in the voice that soon declined. Why? Was it that she’d started too early (14) and sung too much too soon? Or that she always surrendered herself to the dramatic moment and taxed her instrument unduly? That she never completely mastered technique? That she neglected the voice after meeting Onassis? That he broke her heart and she lost her nerve?
Terrence heard that voice first as a teenager in Texas, tuned into a broadcast from Mexico City, where she sang three seasons before becoming famous. Terrence found the sound fascinating, heartbreaking, disturbing, and became a fan who grew to realize that to this voice were wedded a unique dramatic sensibility and a musical refinement and precision experienced only once in a lifetime. We all enjoyed her “rivals” (Renata Tebaldi and Zinka Milanov are two she mentions in the play) and her followers (Joan Sutherland and Renata Scotto later scored, in their own ways, in the early 19th-century Italian repertoire Callas had revived so arrestingly), but Callas remains the watchword for the integration of musical, dramatic and vocal craft into an art so personal, so committed, so searching, that it goes far beyond mere vocalism. “I’m not talking about just singing,” she thunders at Tony in Terrence’s play.