I have two pet peeves when it comes to theater: undeserved moments of fourth wall breaking and shows that rest on the strength of one performer. The fact that Master Class had both wouldn’t have been so noticeable if the play had had more heft and substance. Terrence McNally’s 1995 play about the legendary opera singer Maria Callas leading a master class at Juilliard focuses mainly on a vibrant rendering of Callas made even more vibrant by the performance of an extraordinary actress in that role. Previous Marias have included Patti Lupone and Zoe Caldwell – undoubtedly big shoes to fill. This production features Tyne Daly in the lead role, and she’s extraordinary. Regal, dynamic, and intimidating. But unfortunately, the play is less concerned with creating a narrative than with showing “what Maria Callas was like.” It reminded me of so many biopics (particularly of musicians) where the film feels formulaic and obvious, and the redeeming quality lies entirely on a skilled actor in the leading role. As for the fourth wall breaking, it happens in the first minute of the play. Daly enters the stage and immediately the audience begins clapping. Then she scowls at the crowd and states, “No applause.” It’s a clever technique: the line is said by Callas to the imagined attendants of the master class, but it of course works on the level of Daly speaking to the audience. This would be a great opener if the attention then shifted to the scene onstage, but it goes on a bit too long and starts to feel like Maria Callas doing stand-up.
One recurring joke is Callas’ insistence that the master class “is not about me.” Namely, it’s about the opera students. But of course it is entirelyabout her and her ability to dominate any room, discussion, and relationship. Her frequent deflection of praise followed immediately by a lengthy recounting of her greatest achievements becomes a repetitive device that gets tiring in spite of Daly’s excellent stage presence and comic timing.
Her main objective in working with the students is to open their eyes to the meaning of the words. This was the most captivating part of the play: Callas’ insistence that her students find the emotion behind the music. What she does best is break her students down and build them up again, an approach that works most poignantly with her first student, the awkward yet resilient Sophie (Alexandra Silber). The two following students do less for the play. A corpulent singer named Anthony (Garrett Sorenson) is cast mainly to show off his magnificent voice, but Sorenson, while an accomplished opera singer, has little acting experience and is a bit cringe-worthy in his spoken lines. The third student, Sierra Boggess of Little Mermaid fame, plays the eager prima donna so forcefully that it reduces her character to stereotype.
Twice during the play, Callas takes us into her memory and revisits her proudest moments onstage as well as her tumultuous relationship with Aristotle Onassis offstage. But what’s missing in these scenes and throughout the play is any connective thread that illustrates how music or her career has changed her or what it means to teach the next generation of opera singers. Despite some heated dialogue between Callas and her students, there’s little tension at play. The experience of the master class doesn't change Callas' perspective in any way nor will it likely be memorable to her after the fact. Rather, it's a day in her life amid those hazy years after she stopped singing.