Earlier in the week, I dropped in on Master Class at the Vaudeville Theatre, the start of a run through to April. Tyne Daly takes on Maria Callas, alternately developing and humiliating three students for the pleasure of an audience and it was my first encounter with the play.
I hadn’t expected it to be so out-and-out comedic at the beginning, but it darkens as it develops. There are some great one-liners dotted through it, and each anecdote gets brought up short with a ‘But that’s another story. This isn’t about me.’ The staging is effective, directed by experienced opera director Stephen Wadsworth. I do suspect that the transitions from the master class setting to the more intimate ‘flashback’ confrontations with her husbands, each time in a theatre setting and with Callas giving us both roles in the dialogue, would confuse some who weren’t so ‘up’ on her life story.
Daly is, of course, the centre of attention for most of it and, with the usual caveats that always apply to a portrayal of someone we know well from film or television, she is highly effective and certainly unflagging. She has captured the Greek-American sound of the spoken Callas effectively, and the construction of the piece is adept in how it skirts around the protagonist having to sing.
The three singers that are the subject of the class are also very engaging, particularly the tenor Garrett Sorenson (a graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist programme) and mezzo Naomi O’Connell (a Julliard graduate). They act tremendously well, as well as singing forcefully, aided by the small Vaudeville theatre to sound astonishingly gutsy. Dianne Pilkington is a more conventional music theatre voice, but she puts across the first student’s insecurities effectively. Jeremy Cohen accompanies with flair, as well as giving a good turn as the nervous, doting accompanist (whose name Callas has forgotten from just yesterday).
Each of the arias (Amina’s Ah! non credea mirarti from La Sonnambula; Recondita armonia from Tosca; and Lady Macbeth’s Vieni! t’affretta! from Macbeth) are fascinatingly pulled apart as the singers’ interpretations are refined and the essence of opera (in particular, that singing is dramatic communication, not a static act) is uncovered for them and for us. There is a moving display of the singers singing whilst Callas translates with dramatic urgency, pushing their engagement with the text. The pieces that the students bring to the master class seem fantastically challenging, almost surprisingly so.
Ultimately, enjoyable though the piece is, there is a tinge of camp mawkishness about it, to which you just have to surrender yourself but which lends the piece (to choose an apt metaphor) a rather broad vibrato as it swings between its themes. Terrence McNally also wrote The Lisbon Traviata: a rather harrowing portrayal of psychological disintegration, infused with bitchy queeniness and set against a backdrop of Callas’s coveted bootleg 1958 Traviata recording from the São Carlos theatre). He clearly has his themes, therefore, and Masterclass is imbued with similar dark undertones in its more intimate moments. However, it is most effective when confronting the audience with the deconstructed opera extracts and, with however broad a brush, conveying something of the complex power of the art-form.