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Critic: Nicole Plett. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February
23, 2000. All rights
Review: `Master Class’
Art is domination," pronounces Maria Callas in
Terrence McNally’s free-associating fantasy "Master Class."
"The audience is the enemy — we have to bring you to your
At George Street Playhouse, an intimate space perfect for a master
class, real or imaginary, Maria Tucci is trying on the role of Maria
Callas, the self-described "monstre sacre," as written by
McNally. The playwright won the 1996 Tony for the production in which
Zoe Caldwell created the title role. McNally clearly has a trunkload
of ideas and opinions about the sensational diva — as do we all.
And for the long-term devotee this can cause a clash between his set
of fantasies and our own.
As directed by Ethan McSweeny, Tucci enters with a friendly opening
salute and an insincere request for "No applause," and at
once strikes us as a surprisingly genial Callas. Tucci has a firm
grasp on the Callas "look" — a stunning black silk
set off by a red paisley shawl, her shoulder length black hair pulled
back into a clip. James Youmans’s set adds a sense of verisimilitude
to the production with his wood-paneled music studio furnished with
a Steinway, and we as the the observers of the master class.
Playing Callas as a woman of 48, Tucci only occasionally rises to
the kind of imperious bearing one imagines of this grand diva.
those of us who interact professionally with successful performing
artists — especially those past their prime — are regularly
hit by the force of this fictional royal line.) Boasting eyes in the
back of her head, Callas insists that every artist must have them
— "or end with a dagger in your back."
McNally bases his work on real master classes conducted by Callas
at the Juilliard School in 1971 and ’72, brilliantly cutting away
from the real scene into Callas’s tortured memories of her grand
Although she did go on to perform publicly in 1973 and ’74, by this
time the voice that Callas had once used so recklessly (in the words
of one of the play’s angry students) was gone.
Born in 1923, Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos,
Callas transformed herself through sheer willful determination from
a frumpy diva into a glamorous international celebrity. In the 1940s,
her Italian debut was followed in short order by her marriage to
Battista Meneghini, a wealthy manufacturer 29 years her senior. During
the 1950s she reigned supreme as the Prima Donna Assoluta of
La Scala and every other opera house. By the end of the ’50s, she
shed more weight and Meneghini, replacing him with her
lover, Aristotle Onassis.
McNally has produced a text dripping with withering anecdotes and
scandalous tidbits. His portrait of Onassis, who may or may not have
told her, "Everyone is for sale and I bought you," is coarse
and repugnant. Comparing herself to Medea, Callas recalls how Ari
abandoned her "for a younger woman, a woman of importance,"
the First Widow, Jackie Kennedy. Incontestable is the fact that each
wrenching upheaval in Callas’s life had its physical price. She never
saw old age, dying of a heart attack at age 53.
"These composers knew the human heart. All we have to do is
says Callas with deep feeling as she works with a student on Amina’s
aria from Bellini’s "La Sonambula." Her devotional sentiment
is set in crazy relief later, during Verdi’s "Macbeth," when
she urges her singer on with the words, "The music here is
— ignore it!" And when she tells her terrified young student,
"these people really existed" — that is Amina, Floria
Tosca, Lady Macbeth, et al — Tucci convinces us that her character
sincerely believes this to be true.
Karen Kilroy, as soprano Sophie De Palma, in mini-skirt and fuchsia
flounces, is the first student singer to the slaughter. (Portrayed
as such a ditz, one would be hard-pressed to believe this girl could
have made it through her Juilliard audition.) Yet Callas’s manner
of leading the terrified beginner into the heart of Amina’s lament
is heartfelt. "Everyone can walk in their sleep. There are few
who can weep in song," says Callas, as the music propels her into
the first of the evening’s painful reveries. "The theater, the
stage, are sacred spaces," she tells her students.
As the self-satisfied (and short) tenor Anthony Candolino, Elijah
Chester is fully equal to his role. After Callas dismisses him with,
"Go home Tony tight pants," the tenor holds his ground,
to leave the stage. His stubbornness finally provokes her enthusiasm.
"No — That’s the most interesting thing you’ve said,"
Callas observes, before finally allowing him to perform the
Armonia" aria from Puccini’s "Tosca." This is, of course,
the work in which Callas made her debut in 1942 at age 18 — and
the role to which, as a mature artist, she brought dramatic fire never
before heard or seen in opera houses anywhere. The splendid rendition
by Chester was cheered both onstage and in the auditorium.
As the third of Callas’s student "victims," Rebecca
brings a forceful voice and personality to the role of Sharon Graham,
a young woman Callas insults so cruelly that she flees the scene and
disappears. We are as surprised as the diva when she returns with
the announcement, "I’ve been throwing up in the bathroom, but
I’m ready to go on now." Callas, it seems, is beginning to value
the joy of the music in favor of her own disdain, and eventually asks
Sharon to sing the blood-curdling song twice through.
As Juilliard accompanist Emmanuel Weinstock, Gary Green is totally
right for the role, marvelously musical, a seasoned veteran at dodging
any diva’s imperious barbs. And as the overweight stagehand who is
pure New York issue, Jay Duckworth comes in for his share of diva
"They said they didn’t like my sound. That wasn’t it. They didn’t
like my soul," says Callas, confiding in us, her willing
By this time we know McNally’s marvelous fantasy is in good hands.
Despite any reservations about the identifying features of the
Maria Callas, Maria Tucci ultimately brings us all to our knees.
— Nicole Plett
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Performances continue to March
19. $26 to $38.
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