“We artists wear our hearts on our sleeves,” says Maria Callas early on in Terrence McNally’s “Master Class.” Playing the century’s best-known diva in the Tony-winning play’s return to Los Angeles, Faye Dunaway demonstrates the thrilling truth of the expression, unleashing a performance that rises to wrenching emotional heights in the arias of memory that are the play’s centerpieces.
McNally’s portrait of Callas — which has recently drawn much fire from critical quarters in London — plays up qualities associated with divas of all media: imperiousness, cattiness, self-involvement. Imploring the audience to abstain from cruel judgments of Joan Sutherland, she says with arch magnanimity, “After all, she did her best …”
It’s probably true that the diva construct McNally has created comes at the expense of depicting an image of Callas that’s true to life; but the playwright’s job is not to satisfy music historians, but to entertain audiences, and that he does, making La Divina’s wit as cutting, and captivating, as the unique timbre of her voice. With a severity that’s a little frightening at first, Dunaway’s knife-edged timing hits every acerbic note with perfect pitch.
Putting a trio of students through their vocal paces — the play re-creates one in a series of classes Callas conducted at Juilliard in 1971 — Callas exhorts them to feel the music, not just sing it. As poor Sophie De Palma (the sweetly valiant Melinda Klump) fumbles through Amina’s “Ah, non credea mirarti” from “La Sonnambula,” Callas is gradually moved to recall her own triumph in the role, and as the Juilliard auditorium fades away (Brian MacDevitt’s lighting and Jon Gottlieb’s sound ably perform the magic trick), she’s swept up in memory.
It’s here that McNally’s play — really a monologue with a few cameo roles — treads dangerously close to camp, as the actress playing Callas must also impersonate various characters from Callas’ past, most notably Aristotle Onassis, and act out the psychology of her career and their complicated relationship in double-time (“You give me class,” Onassis says, and proceeds to describe in vulgar detail what she gets in exchange).
And yet, paradoxically, just as the mettle of a singer most thrills when it is most dangerously taxed, it’s in these demanding memory passages that Dunaway’s performance takes fire. She throws herself into them with unflinching emotionality, giving electric truth to McNally’s vision of Callas as a woman whose art was a form of revenge against a world that had deprived her both materially and emotionally. (An orange to Callas the voice student was a luxury she couldn’t afford, and her early marriage to Giovanni Battista Meneghini was more business than pleasure.) Dunaway pulls off the quicksilver changes in character and tone — like the perilous coloratura that was Callas’ vocal forte — miraculously, without hitting a false note.
A casual reference to Joan Crawford in the play probably won’t be the first time some observers are moved to compare Dunaway’s Callas to the actress’s other memorable bio-portrait. ” ‘Mommie Dearest’ with a Greek accent,” quipped more than one wag at the opening night, and indeed there’s a spooky inevitability to the Dunaway-Divina connection. In her appreciation of Dunaway’s operatic performance in that Crawford biopic (the essay was titled “Dunaway Assoluta” — the term describing the ultimate prima donna), Pauline Kael mused that the actress might have a tough time living down her performance, despite its brilliance, and so it proved. Giving a great performance in a bad movie can be just as dangerous as giving a bad one; it turned Dunaway into an instant camp icon. (Tellingly, the title isn’t included in her program bio, which does mention such forgettable pictures as “Voyage of the Damned” and “Dunston Checks In.”)
How apt, then, to find her exploring in McNally’s bio-play the price artists may have to pay for giving all to their art — Callas lost her voice tragically early — and the forces that drive them to do it. And how gratifying to see the results. “I’ve won again!” Callas exults at the end of act one, with a mixture of relief, surprise and exultation at having vanquished an audience with the force of her talent. Dunaway might say the same.