Feature

Master Class

Tyne Daly delivers a poignant and masterful performance as Maria Callas, at a time when the diva's stage career had ended and she was teaching classes at Julliard.

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
New York
(212) 239-6200 

***

No mere diva, Tyne Daly’s Maria Callas is “a gal who could eat Madonna and Martha Stewart whole and call it a light breakfast,” said Elysa Gardner in USA Today. Although the legendary Greek-American soprano reportedly had a sober and professional manner when she taught at Juilliard after she ended her stage career, Terrence McNally’s 1995 script endowed Callas with an acerbic sense of humor, a monumental ego, and not a little jealousy toward her young pupils. A “highly entertaining creature, no doubt,” but only believable if there’s “a skilled and soulful performer to keep her from veering into caricature.” Fortunately, Daly more than fits the bill. While she may not have seemed “an obvious choice for a world-renowned prima donna,” she is “by turns hilarious and poignant,” and “always credible.”

Opera experts have always derided the licenses McNally took in reinventing the star, said Brendan Lemon in the Financial Times. Yet the character’s mean-girl manner is the principal reason non-operagoers can enjoy this play “without feeling they’ve been dragged screaming into a night of culture.” The humor is also what redeems Master Class’s more “soap-operatic” interludes, as when Callas relives great moments in her career as well as her turbulent romance with tycoon Aristotle Onassis.

Daly has found a most unusual way to make it “impossible for you to take your eyes off her,” said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. Though her Callas is at all times a forceful presence to her students, she is at the same time not quite there; Daly somehow conveys that the middle-aged voice coach is still living in the years when “the glory of her career matched the appetite of her ambition.” This revival wouldn’t be worth seeing absent such a performance. Overly melodramatic and contrived, “Master Class is not, even by a generous reckoning, a very good play.” But Daly has taken a role that is essentially “a juiced-up composite of 20th-century divas” and transformed it into “one of the most haunting portraits I’ve seen” of life after stardom has passed.

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