Master Class Review: Tyne Daly as Maria Callas
Tyne Daly has said she didn’t think she was a fit to play the great and tragic opera diva Maria Callas, when playwright Terrence McNally asked her to take on the role in the current revival of his 1995 play, “Master Class” – she is not glamorous, too old, too ignorant about opera, she told him.
“And he said: ‘That’s exactly what Zoe Caldwell said to me….’”
But Zoe Caldwell, who played Callas in the original Broadway production, was wrong, and Tyne Daly, for all her talent and appealing modesty, seems largely correct. She seems miscast as the colorful, commanding perfectionist whom fans called La Divina, in this play inspired by a series of actual master classes Callas conducted at Juilliard in that sad period between the premature end of her career and her premature death at age 53.
To be fair, the imperfect fit may have less to do with Daly’s actual performance than with the public’s perception of her. Zoe Caldwell had played a series of regal, doomed women, from Cleopatra to Medea. Tyne Daly is best known for playing earthy mothers — the detective who is also a Queens wife and mother Mary Beth Lacey in the 1980’s TV series “Cagney & Lacey”; the social-worker mother Maxine McCarty Gray in“Judging Amy”; Mother Rose in her Tony-winning performance in the Broadway revival of “Gypsy.”
Caldwell seemed imperious and brittle as Callas conducting a master class for three opera students in a row, even when the play shifted from the present-day scene of the classroom to aria-like monologues of poignant moments in the life of Callas, who to non-opera buffs is best-known as Aristotle Onassis’s mistress before Jackie O. Daly certainly looks imposing, helped impressively by wig, costume and makeup. But she plays Callas affected, with a put-on refined accent, and emotionally transparent. Yes, it is true that Callas, the daughter of a Greek immigrant pharmacist, who spent her early childhood in Queens and Washington Heights, labored to speak in an upper class accent in all the languages she knew. But among Callas’ gifts was her ability as an actress, pulling off any role, including the one she played off the stage. Daly and director Stephen Wadsworth choose to show us too obviously a Callas whose flamboyant ego-centrism is a flimsy mask on a vulnerable soul.
Luckily, “Master Class” is less a deep character study than an entertainment, and Daly delivers the zingers like the pro that she is, reliably eliciting laughs when she tells a member of an audience “You don’t have a look,” or when she dismisses the idea that she is engaged in rivalries with other singers: “How can you have rivals when no one can do what you can do?”
The five members of the supporting cast do their job, and then some. Sierra Boggess, who last starred on Broadway in “The Little Mermaid” and just finished a tour of duty in the London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies,” plays the student who is both most intimidated and infuriated by Callas. If she lacks the nuance and intensity that Audra McDonald exhibited in the role (which won her a Tony), Boggess and the other real singers in the cast surely have the pipes to whet the appetite of even those theatergoers whose favorite part of any opera (to steal a line from the play) is the intermission.
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At Manhattan Theater Company’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater
By Terrence McNally
Directed by Stephen Wadsworth
Scenic design by Thomas Lynch, costume design by Martin Pakledinaz, lighting design by David Lander, sound design by Jon Gottlieb, wig design by Paul Huntley.
Cast: Sierra Boggess (Sharon Graham), Clinton Brandhagen (Stagehand), Jeremy Cohen (Emmanuel Weinstock), Tyne Daly (Maria Callas), Alexandra Silber (Sophie De Palma) and Garrett Sorenson (Anthony Candolino).
Tickets: $57 – $116
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, which includes one 15-minute intermission
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