Theater review: Tyne Daly as Maria Callas, a diva in a 'Master Class' by herself

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 2010; C01

The master class Tyne Daly conducts in her droll turn as Maria Callas has less to do with music than with the fine art of living portraiture. She's every catty, thin-skinned, self-pitying inch the diva -- a word all too overapplied -- in "Master Class," Terrence McNally's engrossing study of the post-incandescent mind-set of the opera legend.

The last time "Master Class" played the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, it was during the play's pre-Broadway tryout and the splendiferous Zoe Caldwell portrayed the prima donna, a terrifying dispenser of performance wisdom cloaked in Hermès and regret. This time, "Master Class" completes the institution's McNally triptych of plays with opera themes, which it calls "Terrence McNally's Nights at the Opera." And the evening's headliner for the occasion proves to be a remarkably fitting inheritor of the role.

Where Caldwell made for a dizzyingly ravenous Callas -- in her delivery of the pair of autobiographical monologues woven into the play, you could feel an almost diseased need for attention -- Daly's portrayal is less tightly wound, a bit more turned inward. Caldwell took Callas's fury over her ravaged voice and her insecurities about her appearance and used it to assert her primacy over the eager next generation parading before her.

As each young opera singer marched onto the stage to sing and to bear her withering verdict, Caldwell seemed to be rendering an even harsher judgment on herself. It was if, at some level, Callas were waiting all evening to have her darkest shames exposed: the shambles of her personal life, her shortsighted exploitation of her gifts.

Daly's Callas is just as much the priceless put-down artist. You can tell how much McNally loved her, because all the best moments of "Master Class" belong to the opera star's fiendish tongue. An audience hangs on the skillful pauses Daly and her capable director, Stephen Wadsworth, build in, as Callas prepares to castigate a student or recall the inferior work of a rival soprano. (She even attacks members of the audience.) Mentioning Joan Sutherland, for instance, Daly resignedly holds a beat, as if to ponder how gingerly to characterize a person with an insurmountable handicap. "She did her best," she says, finally.

The twist in Daly's Callas is that she's a little less the monster, a little more fragile -- her bluster more easily challenged. When the last student, Sharon (Laquita Mitchell) finally stands up to her, the table-turning doesn't come across quite as explosively as in the past. That isn't a deficiency, just a difference: Daly's Callas expresses a vulnerability compatible with a softer outer shell.

If "Master Class" is little more than a vehicle for Callas to unleash her ego for a healthy run around the stage, what's wrong with that? It's an ego trip well worth the ride. The play, inspired by a series of master classes that the always-controversial Callas, who died in 1977 at age 53, conducted at Juilliard, is structured as one. Three young singers, played by the accomplished Mitchell, Ta'u Pupu'a and Alexandra Silber, take their turns before Callas and the accompanist at the piano (a winningly deferential Jeremy Cohen), ostensibly to learn. If they listen closely, they will get valuable advice, particularly as it addresses Callas's concerns about the Achilles' heel of so many opera singers: an inability to act. Or as she might put it, a failure to be Norma or Lady Macbeth or Tosca.

But the audience is here for another sort of immersion. "This isn't about me," Daly declares disingenuously, early in the play. Some people earn the right to be narcissistic holy terrors, and perhaps what's so watchable about Callas cutting a singer to ribbons is knowing that over a turbulent career, she's given and given to the point of psychic exhaustion -- that she asks far less of these singers than what she demanded of herself.

The visage of the versatile Daly, who, among other things, starred in TV's trailblazing female cop drama "Cagney & Lacey" and played Momma Rose in a celebrated Broadway revival of "Gypsy," does not, in the abstract, invite immediate comparisons with the glamorous soprano. The transformation, then, is impressive. Dressed by Martin Pakledinaz in what seems a tribute to Chanel, and wearing dark hair pulled back -- in a wig by the superb Paul Huntley, Daly's got the look. (And as Callas instructs us, one absolutely must have a "look" -- or as the "Gypsy" strippers sing, "You gotta have a gimmick.")

Wadsworth, an experienced opera director who's staged Molière at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, has come up with an effective way to theatricalize Callas's memory-driven monologues: the platform on which designer Thomas Lynch places the piano divides and recedes for Daly's spoken arias. Even if they are probably important to an understanding of Callas's life, these interludes remain less dramatically vigorous than when the star mixes it up with the singers -- and us.

A fringe benefit of experiencing the three McNally plays, which continue in repertory, could be inadvertent: All the opera talk stimulates an appetite for the real thing. After three nights of rapturous characterizations of "La Sonnambula" and "Norma," those more partial to theater than opera will be persuaded to cross the border more often.

Master Class

by Terrence McNally. Directed by Stephen Wadsworth. Lighting, David Lander; sound, Jon Gottlieb. With Clinton Brandhagen. About two hours. Through April 18 at the Kennedy Center. Visit or call 202-467-4600.

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