Terrence McNally, who has written many plays for the Broadway stage, is a lifelong fan of opera and of Maria Callas. He first heard Callas sing on a recording in 1953, when he was a high school student in Texas, and he later heard her sing in person many times before her retirement from opera in 1965. McNally believed that the secret of Callas’s ability to move her audience was that she identified so completely with the emotions of her characters. Her deep emotional involvement communicated itself to the audience and awakened similar emotions, whether of sorrow or joy, that they experienced in their own lives.
Master Class is not the only play McNally has written with operatic themes. In The Lisbon Traviata (pr. 1985, pb. 1986), two opera fans are in search of a recording of one of Callas’s performances as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata (1853). A recording was not known then to be in existence, although one has since been discovered. The Lisbon Traviata had only limited appeal, and it was with Master Class that McNally found a wider audience. The play ran from November, 1995, to June, 1997, on Broadway and received three Tony Awards. By 1997, there had been about forty productions of the play abroad.
Master Class is important because it re-creates on the stage, for a modern audience, a singer-actress of almost legendary status. Although there were some complaints from critics that McNally’s quarrelsome, egotistical Maria was not historically accurate—unlike her fictional version, Callas conducted her master classes in a professional, helpful manner—the play nonetheless provides a compelling exploration of how great dramatic art is created.