Act 1 As Master Class begins, the house lights are still up. An accompanist seats himself at a piano, after which Maria enters, wearing expensive clothes. She announces that there is to be no applause, because everyone is there to work. She makes some remarks about music as a discipline and says that the singer must serve the composer. In the first of many anecdotes about her life, she tells how, during World War II, she used to walk to the conservatory and back every day, even though she had no proper shoes.
She calls for the house lights to be turned off, and addresses some remarks to the accompanist, telling him that all performers must have a distinctive appearance. The accompanist becomes the butt of her somewhat cruel humor, and she pays tribute to her own teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo.
The first student, a young soprano named Sophie de Palma, enters. Maria criticizes her appearance and tells her to get over her nerves. Sophie says she is going to sing an aria from La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker), an opera by the Italian composer Bellini. It is a difficult aria in which the heroine, Amina, bemoans her loss of love.
After a bored stagehand brings out the footstool that Maria has requested, the accompanist plays the introduction to the aria, but Sophie only manages to sing the first word before Maria interrupts. She tells Sophie that she is not really listening to the music and shows her how to do it. Sophie tries again, but again Maria interrupts her after the first word. She tells the soprano that she is not feeling the true emotions of the character.
Following another interruption from the stagehand, who brings a cushion for Maria, Sophie sings again. Maria gives instructions as her student sings. Then Maria asks the singer to translate from the Italian, and Maria instructs her on the passion behind the words. She also draws her attention to the stage direction, which calls for the singer to fall on her knees, which Maria demonstrates. Then she talks Sophie through the emotions that are being expressed in the aria and berates Sophie for not having a pencil handy to take notes. Maria recalls that her teacher never had to ask her if she had a pencil and adds that that was during the war, when there were shortages of everything. Having a pencil meant going without an orange. She made notes on everything, so she could continue the tradition built up over centuries of opera. She berates Sophie for not knowing the names of all the great sopranos, such as Giudetta Pasta (1797–1865), Zinka Milanov (1906–89), Rosa Ponselle (1897–1981), and Lotte Lehmann (1888–1976).
Sophie begins to sing, and Maria hears in her mind her own performance as a recording of Maria Callas is played. Her mind goes back to her relationship with the wealthy Greek businessman Aristotle Onassis, whose companion she was for many years. As she reminisces, she imitates Onassis’s voice and his crude way of speaking. She has him say that he bought her with his wealth and that she gave him class, allowing him to acquire the respect that had not formerly been given to him. He tells her how wealthy he is and that she can have everything she wants. He wants her to stop her singing career and sing only for him, and he also asks her to have his child.
The aria ends, and on the recording the audience applauds. Maria thinks back to when she was on the stage at La Scala, the famous...
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opera house in Milan. The last part of the aria, known as a caballeta, plays. It is also the end of the opera. She thinks back to an early disappointment, when another girl was chosen to sing the role of Amina at a student recital.
Then she proudly relates how she, who was fat and ugly with bad skin, succeeded. She listens to the musical embellishments that the real Callas is singing on the recording and imagines the way the house lights used to come up while she was still singing. It thrills her to see everyone watching her; her triumph is complete as she listens to the ovation. Then the lights come back up, and the setting is once more the master class. Maria thanks the soprano and leaves the stage.
Act 2 Maria speaks about the sacredness of her art. She notices that there is a bouquet of flowers for her on the piano, but she does not seem to appreciate them. The next student to come out is another young soprano, Sharon Graham, who is to sing one of Lady Macbeth’s arias from Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Maria tells her to go off the stage and re-enter in character. She also mentions that Sharon’s gown, although gorgeous, is inappropriate for the occasion. Sharon goes off and does not reappear. Maria realizes that she has hurt the student’s feelings but is unrepentant, saying that one cannot be sensitive in a tough business.
A tenor named Anthony Candolino is the next student. Maria asks him some questions, and he says his ambition is to be a great singer, rich and famous. He has chosen to sing an aria from Puccini’s opera Tosca. He sings the first phrase, and Maria stops him. She is dissatisfied with him, and after a short exchange, she tries to send him home, but he refuses to go. Maria relents and gives him instructions about voice technique and the expression of feeling. Anthony sings, and Maria is enraptured.
The next student is Sharon, who has decided to return, claiming that she has been sick. She starts Lady Macbeth’s aria once more, but again Maria is displeased. Maria takes over, entering as Lady Macbeth, reading a letter. She sings the first few lines, but her voice is cracked and terrible. Sharon takes over as Maria coaches and cajoles, urging her to get the feelings right, to sing with passion, and to take her cues from the music. After this, she sends Sharon backstage and then summons her again to repeat the scene. But this time, the audience hears not Sharon but a recording of Maria Callas singing the same piece in a live performance from 1952. Maria adds comments as she listens. Her mind goes back to her debut at La Scala, and she imitates the voice of her husband Battista Meneghini. Battista asks whether she loves him, but the question, which he asks often, only irritates her. After giving expression to her resentments and her past difficulties, she boasts that she is now beautiful and had thirty-seven curtain calls that night. Then she breaks some bad news to her husband: she will be marrying Onassis. She apologizes. Then she starts speaking to Onassis, saying that all the years she spent perfecting her art were for him, even though he dislikes opera. She tells him she is pregnant with his child. He bullies her into having an abortion. She tells him that she was fired at La Scala but that in the last performance, she was defiant. She kneels and asks him to marry her.
The recording of Callas ends. Maria tells Sharon she should work on some music more appropriate to her limitations. Sharon bursts into tears and lashes out at Maria, telling her she cannot sing anymore and is envious of anyone younger who can. She leaves.
Maria says that if she has been harsh, it is because she has been harsh with herself, but she has tried to communicate something of what she feels about what an artist and musician does. She concludes with advice to the singer: think of the expression of the words, good diction, and your own deep feelings. She gathers her things and leaves.