In McNally’s ‘Master Class,’ Tyne Daly gives us the Maria Callas we want, if not the one we had

Tyne Daly as Maria Callas. (Joan Marcus)
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Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning drama from 1995, Master Class, imagined legendary soprano Maria Callas in her celebrated teaching sessions for aspiring singers. But music lessons, even those given by one the world’s most celebrated performers, aren’t the stuff of drama. McNally’s stroke of genius was to give us Callas not as she was in these sessions—lighthearted and generous, if sometimes stern—but as we wanted to imagine her: A dominating diva whose way with withering criticism was outmatched only by her mastery of the blunt weapon of faint praise.

This Callas is every inch the prima donna, demanding a cushion and even a footstool before she’ll begin. “No applause,” she announces after waiting for the enthusiastic clapping to subside, “We’re here to work.” Like all divas, she pretends not to be a diva, as when she is outraged by a bouquet of roses from a fan (ignoring her student, of course, as she delightedly reads the card).

“Next victim!” Callas shouts as she moves on to another student, announcing her comment was only a joke.

The role of the opera legend is given in a new revival by Broadway legend Tyne Daly. Although Daly doesn’t physically resemble Callas, she is entirely convincing in the role. In the original production, Zoe Caldwell excelled at revealing fragility beneath the singer’s facade. Daly, on the other hand, reveals her passions, both artistic and sexual. Her Callas intensely feels the sting of long-ago slights, lashing out at a rival who won better roles because of her looks and a manager who fired her after her voice was thin and raspy. She also looks back, not always fondly, on her sexually charged relationship with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Daly gives her character an earthiness that’s a brilliant counterpoint to her poised public persona. This Callas is no tragic figure, which is what makes Daly’s performance so exhilarating.

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In addition to a hapless stagehand (Clinton Brandhagen) and an accompanist who name she doesn’t bother to remember (Jeremy Cohen), Callas browbeats three singers: the mousy soprano Sophie De Palma (Alexandra Silber), the overconfident tenor Anthony Caldolino (Garrett Sorenson), and, her most formidable adversary, a determined soprano named Sharon Graham (Sierra Boggess), who leaves the stage in terror only to return to face down her teacher while she performs the famous letter scene from Verdi’s Macbeth.

The actors playing the students have an almost impossible task: they must be accomplished singers, as each is required to sing a great aria, sometimes over and over as Callas gives them criticism and encouragement. They also must be strong enough actors to hold the stage opposite Daly. Although he has a resonant tenor, Sorenson isn’t up to snuff dramatically. Silber and Boggess are more credible actors, but don’t quite have the voices to fill the house. Ironically it’s Daly herself, in one very brief musical passage, who blasts through the rafters.

Both acts end, more or less, with Callas being transported by the young people’s singing to moments from her own career. She recalls some of her most famous performances, pausing to point out a particularly good high note or a bit of skillful improvisation. But everything seems to remind her of Onassis. In return for giving him “class,” Onassis gives her anything she wants, “within reason.” That doesn’t include, she sadly discovers, a child. A scene where the singer longs for the child she never had is where McNally overreaches. He’s trying for the grand emotions of opera, but this is one moment that feels forced.

There are a lot of revivals from that era going up now. Unlike Driving Miss Daisy, That Championship Season, or any number of other big-name revivals over the past year, Master Class doesn’t feel too small for the big stage. Director Stephen Wadsworth doesn’t rely on a lot of scenery or flashy projections to fill the space. (Although Thomas Lynch’s set, a deceptively simple concert hall, is handsome, and subtly lit by David Lander.) Wadsworth pushes everything else to the background, making sure that Daly has plenty of space to have her diva moment. And she does make the most of it.

Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Master Class plays through August 21 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Tickets are $57 to $116 and are available at www.telecharge.com.