To play Maria Callas requires someone with magnificent presence, and whose attitude reminds us that art is as vital to our existence as oxygen.
The role requires an actress who can sing, own the stage and make us feel as if we are all opera students, drinking in her wisdom.
Tyne Daly is Callas, in all her imperious glory, in “Master Class” at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
The revival of Terrance McNally’s Tony-winning play also features, as the students, Sierra Boggess as Sharon Graham, Alexandra Silber as Sophie De Palma and Garrett Sorenson as Anthony Candolino. Jeremy Cohen plays Emmanuel Weinstock, the pianist. It takes an actor of unusual strength to hold his or her own against Daly.
It’s not as if she sucks up all the oxygen, for Daly yields the stage to them as the script calls, but between the powerful actress Daly is and the phenomenon that was Callas, there just isn’t much room for anything else.
From the opening moments, Callas tells the audience, “This is not a theater. It is a master class. I don’t believe in microphones. If you can’t hear me, it’s you fault. If you can’t hear me come closer, or leave.”
It takes a nanosecond to forget that this is not Mary Beth Lacey from “Cagney & Lacey” or Maxine Gray from “Judging Amy.” Daly becomes Callas, the American-born, Greek-educated opera diva. She was hailed, even decades after her 1977 death, as one of the all-time greats.
Here, she is shown as an older woman, talking about herself as a fat, greasy kid with bad skin and terrible eyesight, yet she shot to incredible fame because of that voice. Her lover was Aristotle Onassis.
She also had a big mouth that wasn’t just used for arias. Callas’ comments about other divas of the day are hilarious.
“I was paid more than any of my rivals,” she says. “That is the newspapers’ word, not mine. How can you have rivals when no one can do what you do?”
Though Daly sings a bit and beautifully — she won the Tony Award for best actress in a musical for “Gypsy” — but the majority of the singing is done by the students. Callas really did teach master classes once her career ebbed.
She doesn’t need to teach the singers to hit the notes or memorize the operas. Rather, she needs to guide them to the next level, to remind them that they must do their homework, and become the character they are playing. By the time anyone reaches the point where they can handle a master class, he’s expected to be able to sing or dance or act.
Calls insists they make an entrance. “Never miss an opportunity to theatricalize,” she says.
She demands her students have presence and give off an energy that makes people make people want to watch them. She tells Sharon, singing the part of Lady Macbeth for her classroom piece, “If you have feelings like Sharon, hide them. You all lack presence. Look at me, I am drinking water and I have presence.”
She does. When Callas’ glorious voice is piped in, as Daly talks, we’re reminded what an astounding, spirit-lifting voice Callas had. Zoe Caldwell and Patti LuPone have played this role, and it takes an actress of immense skill to pull it off.
When Callas pushes her students to reach deeper, try harder and give themselves over to the music, she says, “There are no shortcuts in art.”
Daly proves that.