Opera queens can sniff all they want about Tyne Daly not having the right kind of chops to play Maria Callas in “Master Class,” Terrence McNally’s 1995 tribute to the flamboyant opera diva as she neared the end of her life. But while the dynamic Daly might not possess the air of self-dramatizing tristesse that hovered over Callas after her blazing career came to an end, Daly brings something better to the character — a sense of vulnerable humanity that makes her courage to survive all the more admirable.
As the play is constructed, the master classes Callas gave for Juilliard students in the early ’70s (she died in 1977) are essentially the dramatic setup for two flagellating monologues in which the soprano rages about the injustices of her lifetime: the loss of her voice, which ended her career in 1965, and the loss of her longtime lover, the Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis, who crassly threw her over for Jackie Kennedy.
Zoe Caldwell, who toplined “Master Class” when it originally played Broadway in 1995, was coolly imperious during the tutorials. But she tore into these two juicy monologues like some aged jungle beast, raging at the top of her lungs about being cast out by the pack to die alone.
Daly plays it the other way around. She’s heartbreaking rather than frightening in the monologues, voicing her anger and humiliation while suffering in a more introspective way, mourning her past triumphs, nursing her regrets, and giving herself up to the pain of her losses. But she’s incredibly vital during the tutorials and sensitive to the cowering students McNally calls her “victims.”
Before the students even come on, Callas imparts her first lesson — “It’s important to have a look” — to the adoring accompanist (played by the genial Jeremy Cohen) trying to hide behind his grand piano. Daly’s own “look” starts with the intense gaze from her heavily made-up eyes and takes its cosmopolitan style from a smart pants suit and Hermes scarf, topped by a magnificent jet-black wig by Paul Huntley.
Daly draws on her consummate comic skills to deliver Callas’s hilariously cruel put-downs of her students. With impeccable timing and terrific panache, she mangles their names, trashes their selections and interrupts them with self-aggrandizing memories of her own triumphs. And what joy she takes in chopping down rivals like Joan Sutherland (“She did her best. It wasn’t her fault”) and dismissing all tenors with withering scorn.
But Daly has a generous spirit that can’t be repressed; it was the magic ingredient in her incandescent turn as Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” Something electrifying happens onstage here whenever Callas is instructing these kids in how to listen to the music, interpret a lyric, feel a character, and act the hell out of a scene — the way that she did when she snatched opera away from the bel canto purists and turned it into bone-rattling drama with passion and soul.
Stephen Wadsworth, a director with impressive opera credits, was recruited by Daly to helm this revival, and he appears to have made some accommodations to her personal strengths. The script indicates that Callas’s first student, Sophie De Palma (Alexandra Silber, in gorgeous voice for her Broadway debut), is meant to be a sacrificial lamb. But while Callas keeps cutting off the poor child before she can get out the first note of her aria, her instructions on character-building are brilliantly incisive and the baby soprano comes out of her grueling tutorial transformed.
Even a vain, dim-witted tenor like Anthony Candolino (Garrett Sorenson) responds to Callas’s earthy advice on how to make love to a woman like Tosca. With Daly warming her up, Callas actually seems pleased, rather than eaten up with envy, when her pupils catch on to the emotional honesty that informs her killer teaching techniques.
Which may explain why the big fireworks between Callas and her last student don’t really ignite. Sierra Boggess, who recently starred in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies” on the West End, has the voice to do justice to Sharon Graham, the most talented — and threatening — of Callas’s pupils, and the role that made a star of Audra McDonald. Launching her attack from the young soprano’s own diva sensibility, Boggess bares her teeth when she accuses the diminished star of being envious of her pupils’ youth and fresh talent. But her cruelty doesn’t have the expected impact, not on a woman who, as played by Daly, is well-acquainted with her own demons and perfectly capable of destroying herself.