The Changes Callas Brought to Opera Singing

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Playwright McNally is a lifelong fan of Maria Callas. He first heard her when he was a fifteenyear- old high school student in Texas in 1953. The recording was of Callas singing in Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor, and McNally felt that she was singing just for him. He later wrote, ‘‘Listening to Callas is not a passive experience. It is a conversation with her and finally, ourselves. . . . She tells us her secrets—her pains, her joys—and we tell her ours right back’’ (quoted by John Ardoin, author of ‘‘Callas and the Juilliard Master Classes,’’ in Terrence McNally: A Casebook).

McNally was fortunate enough to have heard Callas sing live twenty-five to thirty times, something that few other people in the United States can match. Callas’s career was short, and not many people younger than fifty are likely to have heard her live on the operatic stage, since her last performance, as Tosca at London’s Covent Garden, was in July 1965. (Many determined operagoers waited in line for five nights to get tickets.) Her last performance in the United States was at New York’s Metropolitan Opera a few months earlier. At the Met, the audience gave Callas a tumultuous reception, and the long bouts of applause at her entrance and during the acts extended the performance an hour longer than scheduled. ‘‘The stage presence shown by Callas in her performance would have raised the hackles on a deaf man’’ was only one among the torrent of accolades that the critics bestowed on her in the morning newspapers the following day (quoted by Arianna Stassinopoulos in her Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend).

However, despite the legendary status Callas attained in her lifetime, for today’s reader or playgoer who has little knowledge of opera, the name Maria Callas may be scarcely more than a name from the distant past. Perhaps for the non-opera fan, the most vivid moments that capture what Callas meant and still means to many people occur in the 1993 film Philadelphia, for which Tom Hanks won an Oscar. Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer who has AIDS and who is illegally fired from his job because of it. He fights back against the law firm as he also battles the deadly disease. In a key scene Andy listens at home, with his lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), to a 1954 recording of Callas singing Maddalena’s aria, ‘‘La Mamma Morta,’’ from Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chenier . Andy, whose favorite aria this is, is transported in ecstasy and pain as Callas sings the story of Maddalena’s tragic life. Translating the words over her voice as he listens, he asks Joe, ‘‘Can you hear the heartache in her voice? Can you feel it, Joe?’’ Joe, who knows nothing of opera and is stunned by what is going on, nods his head earnestly. The aria reaches its climax when Maddalena tells how Love came to her and urged her, in spite of her despair, to live: ‘‘Sorridi espera! lo son l’amore! . . . lo son divino’’ (‘‘Smile and hope! I am Love! . . . I am divine’’). As Callas’s top notes ring out in affirmation and triumph—an ecstasy emerging from bitterest pain—Andy feels the same inspiration, ready heroically to affirm life even as he faces a cruel death. It is Callas’s disembodied voice that creates the intense drama of this scene, which is so pivotal to the movie. It perfectly illustrates McNally’s comment quoted above, to which he added an imaginary snatch of dialogue between diva and devotee: ‘‘‘I...

(This entire section contains 1921 words.)

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have felt such despair and happiness,’ Callas confesses. ‘So have I, so have I,’ we answer.’’ McNally suggests that what we see and hear in the characters that Callas brings to such vivid life is a reflection of ourselves, of our own hopes and disappointments, sorrows and joys, just as the aria fromAndrea Chenier mirrors the deepest emotions of Andy in Philadelphia.

It is fortunate that all the great roles Callas sung have been preserved on audio recordings so that present and future generations will be able to enjoy and learn from her. However, many people who heard her sing in person say that audio recordings do not convey everything that Callas brought to the roles. In addition to her expressive voice, with its distinctive dark timbre, she was also a dramatic actress of astonishing gifts. She had an electrifying stage presence, as this comment by London critic Bernard Levin (quoted in Nigel Douglas’s book, More Legendary Voices) makes clear: ‘‘We all tingled when she entered as though we had touched a live wire.’’

Although Callas’s career ended before the age of video had fully arrived, several of her performances have been preserved on videotape in black and white. Although they cannot convey the full force of what it must have been like to hear and see her in the flesh, they do preserve something of Callas’s magnetic presence, the passion and emotional power she brought to her singing, and the adoration she evoked from her fans. Two of the videos are concert performances given in Hamburg, one in 1959, in which she sings the letter-reading aria from Verdi’s Macbeth that is featured in Master Class, and the other in 1962. Two of the arias in that 1962 video recording (which is still commercially available) perfectly illustrate the themes of Master Class that Maria labors to instill in her students: they must fully inhabit the roles they are singing, they must summon up from somewhere within themselves the emotions that are required, they must become the characters they are representing.

In the videotape from Hamburg on that longago night in 1962, Callas makes her entrance with dignity and basks in the applause, smiling radiantly and offering a regal wave of the hand. Not for nothing does Maria in Master Class instruct Sharon Graham to make a real entrance, not just come out on stage: ‘‘You’re on a stage. Use it. Own it. This is opera, not a voice recital. Anyone can stand there and sing. An artist enters and is.’’ In the Hamburg recording, Callas then accepts a rose from a middle-aged admirer, breaks off the stem, and with a spontaneous flourish inserts the flower into her cleavage. (‘‘Never miss an opportunity to theatricalize,’’ says Maria in Master Class.) Callas is now fully the diva, lapping up the adoration of her fans. But then it is time for business. As the orchestra begins the introduction to ‘‘Pleurez, mes yieux,’’ Chimène’s aria from act 3 of Jules Massenet’s opera Le Cid, Callas closes her eyes, and a contemplative look appears on her face. It is as if we are watching the moment of metamorphosis, in which the diva turns into the character Chimène (a transition that is never seen in the opera house, since the singer is in character all the time she is on stage). Callas then opens her eyes and glances upwards. Now she is her character, and is ready to expresses the conflict in Chimène’s mind and heart: the man she is in love with is also the man who killed her father, and she knows that whatever happens in the future, there will be great sorrow for her. Callas closes her eyes again, tilting her head to the left as an expression of anguish crosses her face. She has taken her cue from the agitation that appears in the music. It is just as Maria in Master Class urges her students: listen to the music, because the music tells the singer all she needs to know. And as Callas begins to sing the aria, one senses that nothing in that concert hall exists for her at that moment other than the music and the emotions that it summons forth in her. ‘‘Very few people can weep in song,’’ Maria says to her student Sophie, and this aria reminds us that Callas was one of them.

It is a similar story for the final aria on this recording, ‘‘O don fatale,’’ from Verdi’s Don Carlos. (The aria is mentioned in passing in Master Class.) Callas’s singing here is so dramatic that it is likely to give anyone goosebumps. There is little buildup—a moment of inner contemplation, a sudden glance upward like a stab of pain or a moment of shock, and then Callas tears into the aria, with all its twists and turns of deeply felt emotion, holding nothing back. It is a testament to her fictional counterpart in Master Class, who says over and over that the singer must feel the music she is singing: her art is all about ‘‘Feeling, feeling, feeling.’’

It is also, of course, about technique. All the passionate intensity in the world is of no use unless it can be channeled through the confines of the art form in which it is expressed. As Callas herself said in one of her real-life master classes, advising a student to study a difficult aria meticulously and slowly, ‘‘Do not try to add exterior passion until you are confident with the aria’s internal demands. In opera, passion without intellect is no good; you will be a wild animal and not an artist’’ (quoted in John Ardoin’s Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes). No one who studies the transcripts of Callas’s master classes could fail to appreciate her deep knowledge of the minutiae of the vocal music, even in arias for voices other than soprano.

It was this combination of technical mastery, emotional expressiveness, and dramatic skill that made Callas the preeminent artist she was. Although vocal technique was something that Callas, throughout her life a perfectionist, labored hard to perfect— her voice had flaws that she never succeeded in eradicating—the dramatic, expressive power that could so electrify an audience seemed to be a natural ability. As Ardoin puts it in The Callas Legacy, ‘‘Callas seemed incapable of being inexpressive; even a simple scale sung by her implied a dramatic attitude or feeling. This capacity to communicate was something she was born with.’’

So great was Callas’s impact that scholars routinely refer to the ‘‘Callas revolution’’ when they discuss the changes that she brought to opera singing. No longer was the Italian bel canto (literally ‘‘beautiful singing’’) repertoire, such as Bellini’s Norma or Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, merely an opportunity for a beautiful vocal performance, with dramatic considerations secondary. Callas interpreted the roles with such feeling and dramatic intensity that the heroines of these operas became believable characters. Since her career, which spanned the 1950s and early 1960s, came at a time when the increasing popularity of film and television was beginning to condition audiences to expect greater realism from operatic performances, Callas played a vital role in maintaining opera as a viable form of entertainment.

There is no doubt also that Callas paid a price for her gifts. The underlying suggestion in Master Class is that the artist, as a consequence of being able to feel deeply, must also suffer deeply. She must know not only the heights of human experience but also its depths, the extremes of anger, grief, despair, and isolation. Callas in her personal life knew all these emotions intimately. It is to her lasting credit that she was able to harness her pain and send it out in the service of great art.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Master Class, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Master Class and the Paradox of the Diva

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Master Class begins with a double untruth. Maria Callas (or, more accurately, the actress playing Maria Callas) strides on stage, almost certainly to the accompaniment of the audience’s applause, looks directly at the audience, and announces, ‘‘No applause. We’re here to work. You’re not in a theatre. This is a classroom.’’

The first untruth is the statement that we are not in a theatre, since we in fact are in a theatre, both outside of and within the fictional world of the play. In Master Class, the stage of the theatre represents the stage of a theatre—the recital hall at the Juilliard School, where Maria Callas gave a series of master classes in 1971 and 1972 before a full house of students and spectators. In the theatre, when Master Class is performed, it is, of course, not really 1971 but the present; it is not Juilliard but (for the play’s Broadway run) the Golden Theatre; and the audience is comprised of paying theatregoers, not advanced voice students. But the audience is there, as an audience, in both the reality of the theatrical event and the fiction of the play. The actor may be (in the original production) Zoe Caldwell and not the ‘‘real’’ Maria Callas, but the response of the audience to Caldwell—applause—is the same response that the 1971 Juilliard audience (the fictional audience that the real audience pretends to be) has for Callas. For Caldwell/Callas to tell us that we are not in a theatre flies in the face of what we know to be true, both in life and in the fiction of the play.

The other untruth is that Maria Callas does not want applause. Maria Callas, we soon see, lives for applause, and thrives on having an audience, alternately revealing and concealing herself from it, pandering for its affection and sympathy and holding it in contempt. Later in the play she will even deny that she had asked the audience not to applaud. Maria’s attitude and her philosophical pronouncements are filled with such contradictions: that we cannot know what she suffered in Greece during the war and that we have to know it; that one can only create art if one has suffered and that one must not bring one’s private suffering to one’s art; that singers sing for the sheer joy of it and that singers must never give away their talent except for sufficient pay, etc., etc. The paradox of the audience’s simultaneous presence and absence, of the fiction’s theatricality and non-theatricality, is mirrored by Maria Callas’s opinions—at best paradoxical and at worst contradictory and mutually exclusive—about life, art, performance, and their relationship. And at the heart of these paradoxes is the real subject of the play, what one might call ‘‘the Paradox of the Diva.’’

Terrence McNally has dramatized the phenomenology of the diva before, most notably in what might be considered the ultimate play about ‘‘opera queens,’’ The Lisbon Traviata. But there the focus is not on the diva but on her fans, the homosexual protagonists who project onto the diva their own identity, desires, and suffering. In The Lisbon Traviata the opera queen’s identification is both with the singer and with the operatic role she plays: both with Maria Callas, the self-consuming performer who makes her private suffering transcendently public through her performances, and with Violetta, the consumptive courtesan in La Traviata, who sacrifices her happiness and her health for love.

McNally is not interested in the phenomenon of the opera queen in Master Class (though in one of the flashback sequences, Maria ventriloquizes the voice of her lover Aristotle Onassis, who observes ‘‘The fags just want to be you.’’ Instead he shifts his focus to the object of the opera queen’s emulation, the diva herself. But the way he views the diva is clearly in line with the paradoxes and contradictions in the way opera queens admire and emulate the diva, a phenomenon most recently articulated in Wayne Koestenbaum’s autobiographical polemic, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. The opera queen, Koestenbaum argues, admires both the diva’s persona—her arrogance, grandeur, and self-fashioned hauteur and sublime bitchiness—and the roles that the diva plays. Indeed, the opera queen’s identi- fication with the roles the diva plays magnifies the opera queen’s emulation of the diva, for the diva, the opera queen believes, identifies with the character even more closely than the opera queen ever can and so becomes the opera queen’s emotionally expressive, sacrificial surrogate. As Stephen, one of the two opera queens in The Lisbon Traviata, explains, ‘‘Opera is about us, our life-and-death passions—we all love, we’re all going to die. Maria understood that. That’s where the voice came from, the heart, the soul, I’m tempted to say from some even more intimate place.’’ At the end of the play, Stephen, having failed to enact Don Jose to his departing lover’s Carmen, throws his head back in a silent scream of heartbreak while Callas’s Violetta plays on the stereo, the diva’s voice expressing a pain that is simultaneously the singer’s, the character’s, and the listener’s.

The diva, the subject of the opera queen’s emulation, is simultaneously present and absent, playing a distilled and self-fashioned version of herself in every role she plays and dissolving herself into the music and the dramatic situation of the character she acts and sings, rendering herself transparent to the character and the composer (and librettist) behind the character. The difference between the actor and the character she is playing is erased in the eyes of the opera queen: the diva is both transcendently herself and transubstantially the character; indeed, that is to a great extent the source of her glory.

But the relation of an actor to the character he or she is playing is, in the theatre as well as in opera, much more complicated and more paradoxical than the opera queen imagines. And this complicated relationship of actor to role—the paradoxical complementarity of the consummately self-effacing actor and the transcendently-herself diva—is the real subject of Master Class, a play in which the opera-singer-as-lecturer is not ‘‘in character’’ (‘‘You’re not in a theatre. This is a classroom’’) and yet is never, strictly speaking, ‘‘out’’ of character, in which theatrical performances draw upon the performer’s true ‘‘self’’ and yet the ‘‘self’’ is itself always performative.

The salient biographical facts about Maria Callas’s life are all made reference to in Master Class, her American and Greek upbringing, her training, the patronage of Battista Meneghini, her debut, her radical physical transformation and weight loss, her affair with Onassis, her conflicts with tenors, managers, directors, and rival sopranos, the hirings and firings, and the precipitate decay of her voice. But the play is less a biography of the artist than it is a play about the nature of artistry, the relation of a particular artist’s life to her art. The paradoxes of this relationship are both the play’s subject and dictate the play’s form, and these paradoxes ultimately lead to a shift in the play’s focus that muddies the play’s focus and, as we shall see, finally undoes the play’s otherwise pristine structure.

The play’s action, such as it is, consists of three consecutive coaching sessions in real time: Sophie de Palma, a soprano, who sings Adina’s ‘‘Ah, non credea mirarti’’ from Bellini’s La Somnambula; Anthony Candolino, a tenor, who sings ‘‘Ricondita armonia’’ from Puccini’s Tosca; (and soprano Sharon Graham, who is driven from the stage by Callas’s brow-beating but returns to be coached in Lady Macbeth’s entrance aria, ‘‘Vieni! t’afretta’’ from Verdi’s Macbeth. In each of these sessions, Callas is rude, condescending, dismissive, and egocentric. And in all three sessions she is a brilliant teacher. And there emerges from her teaching, however obnoxious, a coherent, if complex, philosophical position about the relationship of the singing actor to the operatic role.

Callas interrupts the first note that Sophie de Palma sings in the Bellini aria: ‘‘I want to talk to you about your ‘Oh!’’’ The student answers, ‘‘I sang it, didn’t I?’’ Callas explains:

That’s just it. You sang it. You didn’t feel it. It’s not a note we’re after here. It’s a sob of pain. The pain of loss. Surely you understand loss. If not of another person, then maybe a pet. A puppy. A goldfish.

Mixed with Callas’s patronizing examples (‘‘a puppy. A goldfish’’) is a stereotypical ‘‘Stanislavski Method’’ acting exercise—Lee Strasberg’s ‘‘emotional memory’’—in which the actor substitutes an experience from his or her own life to generate an emotional response equivalent to the emotions of the character that are called for in the dramatic situation of the script. Callas repeatedly rejects ‘‘just singing’’ (‘‘You were just singing,’’ she tells the tenor, ‘‘which equals nothing’’). Instead she calls for acting, in the twentieth-century Stanislavskian tradition: feeling ‘‘real’’ emotions based on the ‘‘given circumstances’’ of the script and embellished or translated in the imagination of the actor (when the tenor complains that ‘‘It doesn’t say anything about ten A.M. or spring or Tosca’s body in the score,’’ Callas responds, ‘‘It should say it in your imagination. Otherwise you have notes, nothing but notes.’’

The emotions that Callas calls for are not ‘‘realistic’’; they are channeled through the artifice of the operatic medium (‘‘Anyone can walk in their sleep,’’ she tells Sophie, singing a somnambulist’s aria; ‘‘Very few people can weep in song’’). Each successive level of expression in opera is more artificial: speech is more active and demands more actively channeled emotional energy and a more intense revelation of one’s own more intense emotions than silence; recitative calls for more energy and emotion than speech (‘‘When you can no longer bear to speak, when the words aren’t enough, that’s when he [Bellini] asks you to sing’’; aria more than recitative; and a cabaletta more than its preceding aria.

‘‘This is not a film studio,’’ she explains, ‘‘where anyone can get up there and act. I hate that word. ‘Act.’ No! Feel. Be. That’s what we’re doing here.’’ And she later tells Sharon, helping her ‘‘make an entrance’’ for her Lady Macbeth entrance aria, ‘‘This is opera, not a voice recital. Anyone can stand there and sing. An artist enters and is.’’ What Callas means by ‘‘be’’ and ‘‘is’’ is clearly something more than passive existence or inexpressive emotion and is rather a grand, artificial, projected distillation of one’s identity and emotional truth: as she tells Sophie, ‘‘This is the theatre, darling. We wear our hearts on our sleeves here.’’ When she tells Sophie ‘‘I’m not getting any juice from you, Sophie. I want juice. I want passion. I want you’’, she clearly means that the ‘‘you’’ that an opera singer needs to ‘‘be,’’ the being that breathes and feels and sings on stage, is something grand, extreme, distilled, and directed. Callas doubts whether Sophie has that magnitude of experience or the magnitude of expressiveness: ‘‘He’s broken her heart. Have you ever had your heart broken?’’ she asks. When Sophie answers, ‘‘Yes,’’ Callas adds, snidely, ‘‘You could have fooled me’’; and Sophie herself concludes, ruefully, ‘‘I’m not that sort of singer. . . . I’m not that sort of person either.’’

What ‘‘sort of person’’ does it take to be an opera singer? Here again there are both paradoxes and contradictions in what Callas teaches. On the one hand, she claims on her first entrance, the diva must practice complete self-effacement: ‘‘If you want to have a career, as I did—and I’m not boasting now, I am not one to boast—you must be willing to subjugate yourself—is that a word?—subjugate yourself to music.’’ But, paradoxically, the singer both erases herself and is completely herself. For subjugation involves sacrifice, and what is being sacri- ficed is the singer’s own self. The diva must be a supreme egotist in order to make the supreme sacri- fice of her ego to her audiences. And, she argues, you must be well paid for your pains. ‘‘Never give anything away. There’s no more where it came from. We give the audience everything and when it’s gone, c’est ca, c’est tout. Basta, finito. We’re the ones who end up empty.’’ She invokes Medea’s line to Jason in Cherubini’s Medea—‘‘I gave everything for you. Everything’’—to explain this: ‘‘That’s what we artists do for people. Where would you be without us? Eh? Think about that. Just think about it while you’re counting your millions or leading your boring lives with your boring wives.’’ The sacrifice of the self is too great to be wasted on psychotherapy: ‘‘Feelings like Sharon’s’’—who has run off stage to vomit and has not yet returned—‘‘We use them. We don’t give them away on some voodoo witch doctor’s couch.’’ Instead, they should be saved for the stage, where they are distilled and delivered, at great personal pain, to the audience.

Callas’s relation to her audience—both the audience of her operatic past and the current audience in the classroom/recital hall—is fraught with contradictions. ‘‘The audience is the enemy,’’ she says, quoting Medea’s line to Jason; ‘‘Dominate them. . . . Art is domination. It’s making people think for that precise moment in time there is only one way, one voice. Yours. Eh.?’’ At times (including the flashback sequences, in which Callas recalls singing only for Meneghini or only for Onassis), the audience is worthy of the singer’s self-immolation and sacrifice. At other times the audience is passive, unappreciative, and unworthy: she talks scornfully of an acquaintance whose favorite part of the operas are the intervals; and we see her hold in contempt the stagehand in the recital hall, who neither knows nor cares about the art being created on the stage within earshot.

McNally best dramatizes the capacity of an audience to be moved by the artificially distilled expressive powers of the singer’s voice and emotions channeled through the composer’s music when Callas herself listens to Tony Candolino sing ‘‘Ricondita armonia.’’ To the tenor’s disappointment, after he has finished singing, she says only ‘‘That was beautiful. I have nothing more to say. That was beautiful.’’ Being an audience member, being the recipient of the imagined emotions of Cavaradossi for Tosca as channeled through the voice and soul of the tenor as she never was when she played Tosca herself (‘‘I was always backstage preparing for my entrance’’), Callas is, for one of the rare moments in the play, left speechless. And she stumbles awkwardly from that moment—a moment that demonstrates why, from an audience’s point of view, the singer’s art is worthwhile—to the unexpected admission that ‘‘It’s a terrible career, actually. I don’t know why I bothered.’’

Through her pedagogical encounters with Sophie and Tony, Callas teaches both the students and the audience what it takes to become an effective singing actor. One must have suffered sufficiently to provide the emotional raw material for embodying the character’s emotion. One must be willing to reexperience the most difficult times of one’s life over and over again, with all of the focused and distilled intensity of the first experience. One must be willing to display one’s most private feelings and experiences in public, both to an uncaring and ungrateful audience (personified, in Master Class, by the stagehand) and to an attentive and appreciative public that demands that each performance be yet another self-consuming and self-consumed display of reexperienced emotional agonies. And, finally, becoming a singing actor requires the singer to turn him- or herself into an artificial being, in part because the medium of musical and theatrical expression is so highly conventionalized and artificial and in part because of the cutthroat world of the operatic profession. One must, in short, play the part of the diva to be a diva; one must become a monster of egotism, selfishness, competitiveness, and vindictiveness, capable of cutting a swathe for oneself in the world of managers, conductors, directors, claques, and other divas, in order to get the opportunity to practice one’s art. And, by practicing one’s art, by dredging up every life experience and emotion in the service of the drama, and the dramatic character, and the music, one self-destructs, consuming irreversibly the raw material of the art in the very act of making the art. Becoming the diva leaves little more than dry tinder; singing sets the tinder alight, burning with a brilliant flame before the audience, until all that is left are ashes, thorns, and nails.

And so we see Maria Callas through the play: a brilliant actress still, still wearing her all-too-public life’s pain on her sleeve, still grabbing the spotlight, indulging her ego, destroying with a glance or a quip everyone around her. And when she finally sings, the stage directions record, ‘‘What comes out is a cracked and broken thing.’’

By the middle of the second act, after Callas has coached two singers and driven a third from the stage, we have learned about the paradoxes of acting contained within the diva’s craft, and we have come to some understanding of how this craft calls upon the singer to create a particular performative persona and to put that persona to the service of the self-consuming art of singing. Callas, in her roundabout and often contradictory way, explains these principles to us as she coaches Sophie and Tony, and she demonstrates, in her abominably egotistical behavior, what she has become in service of this art. But it not until the final third of the play, when she coaches Sharon Graham, that we see the means by which a younger singer can put these principles into practice, that we see a singer who can become, potentially at least, another Callas and, in this instance, chooses not to.

Sharon has returned to the recital stage after vomiting in fear and humiliation, determined now to prove herself. Callas humiliates her and browbeats her into acting and not just singing the aria, as she did with Sophie and Tony. But here, as we watch, the Stanislavskian exercises and the Strasbergian emotional memory substitutions begin to work. Callas insists that everything be concrete, specific: the letter from Macbeth that Lady Macbeth reads, in unsung speech before the recitative, must be real, and not imagined (‘‘I don’t want pretending. You’re not good enough. I want truth; the news of Duncan’s imminent arrival comes not from ‘someone’ but from ‘a servant’.’’ When Sharon hesitates between the recitative and the aria, Callas, swept up in the flow of the drama and encouraging Sharon to be swept up too, insists ‘‘don’t even think of stopping! You are Lady Macbeth!.’’ After the aria, with the news of Duncan’s arrival, the emotional identification of Sharon with Lady Macbeth is, with Callas’s coaching, nearly complete:

Maria: How does that make her feel?

Soprano: Happy?

Maria: Don’t keep looking at me for answers, Sharon. Tell me, show me. Vite, vite!

Soprano: Really happy.

Maria: Love happy? Christmas morning happy? Soprano: Murder happy!

Maria: Ah! And what is she going to do about it?

Soprano: She’s going to sing a cabaletta!

Maria: She’s going to kill the king! Do you know what that means?

Soprano: Yes, it’s terrible.

Maria: Not to her! Do you believe women can have balls, Sharon?

Soprano: Some women. Yes, I do!

Maria: Verdi is daring you to show us yours, Sharon. Will you do it?

Soprano: Yes!

The stakes of the scene, the stakes of the act of performing itself, have become, for Sharon, nearly like those for Callas. ‘‘This isn’t just an opera. This is your life,’’ Callas insists. ‘‘Is there anything you would kill for, Sharon,’’ she asks her, suggesting ‘‘A man, a career?’’ ‘‘You have to listen to something in yourself to sing this difficult music,’’ she insists, suggesting that the characters she has sung, and the characters of the classical tragedies of her native Greece—Medea, Electra, Klytemnestra—were real people, to whom she has a real connection:

Maria: These people really existed. Medea, Lady Macbeth. Or don’t you believe that? Eh? This is all make-believe to you?

Soprano: I’ve never really thought about it.

Maria: That’s because you’re young. You will. In time. Know how much suffering there can be in store for a woman.

As Sharon sings, she feels in her soul, her body, and her voice the connection that Callas insists is the true art of the diva. And she is told, and undoubtedly understands, the life, emotions, and experience to which the singing actor’s art must be connected: one in which she is capable of feeling that she could kill for a man or a career, where in time she will know how much suffering is in store for her, where she can not only believe in Medea or Lady Macbeth but can feel so strong a kinship with them that she can become them, emotionally and viscerally. Sharon, unlike Sophie and Tony, is capable of learning the lessons that Callas has to teach.

After Sharon finishes singing the complete aria and cabaletta, Callas, coming out of her reverie/ flashback sequence, dismisses Sharon’s professional prospects, damning her with the faint praise:

I think you should work on something more appropriate for your limitations. Mimi or Micaela maybe. But Lady Macbeth, Norma, I don’t think so. These roles require something else. Something. How shall I say this? Something special. Something that can’t be taught or passed on or copied or even talked about. Genius. Inspiration. A gift of god. Some recompense for everything else.

Sharon, in tears, responds:

I wish I’d never done this. I don’t like you. You can’t sing anymore and you’re envious of anyone younger who can. You just want us to sing like you, recklessly, and lose our voices in ten years like you did. Well, I won’t do it. I don’t want to. I don’t want to sing like you. I hate people like you. You want to make the world dangerous for everyone just because it was for you.

Sharon clearly wants to get back at Callas for her condescension. But there is more to her response than this. Sharon sees in Callas’s cruelty the more important truth of the diva’s art: that this type of art exacts too high a price, that one would not wish upon oneself the experiences and suffering that could generate such art, and that creating art from such personal and emotional raw materials is self-consuming, and ultimately destroys the medium of the art—the singer’s voice. Sharon leaves the stage; Callas brushes off the confrontation, withdraws into the shell of her professional persona, utters a few platitudes about art and, saying ‘‘well, that’s that’’, brings both the master class and Master Class to a close.

Throughout the play, McNally has been putting forth as his hypothesis the myth of Callas the diva: she so channels her own life and emotions into her singing and acting; she so fully becomes a conduit for her own sorrows and the object of projection for the fantasies and emotions of her audiences that she has ruined her voice and withered into a cruel and egotistical if magnificent monster, a monstre sacre. Sharon’s defection at the end only confirms the hypothesis and elevates the diva to an even-greater level: a figure of sublime loneliness, shunned as a pariah, so monstrous that she can be watched in awe but is too horrifying to be emulated.

The dramaturgical mastery of Master Class lies in its twin strategies for representing Callas as a dramatic character. For, in watching her teach, we see the monster she has become; and in learning what she teaches—the practices of personal, emotional- based acting that she teaches unsuccessfully to Sophie and Tony and successfully if Pyrrhically to Sharon—we learn how she has become that person. We see less the genuine person and more the persona that Callas has created for herself and that has been created for her: the diva. From the moment that Callas singles out a member of the audience to demonstrate how ‘‘It’s important to have a look’’, we see the theatricality, the performativity of the diva’s persona. ‘‘This isn’t a freak show. I’m not a performing seal,’’ she tells Sophie, explaining that her fabled fieriness is not a performance but an ingrained part of her identity: ‘‘My fire comes from here, Sophie. It’s mine. It’s not for sale. It’s not for me to give away. Even if I could, I wouldn’t. It’s who I am. Find out who you are. That’s what this is all about. Eh?’’ And yet Callas is a freak, a performing seal. Within Callas’s talents as a self-creator, within the persona that she has forged from her status as diva (‘‘Never miss an opportunity to theatricalize,’’ she tells Sharon), everything is a performance. Acting, even when acting means surrendering to a character and effectively becoming that character, never entails the loss of self; indeed, it is where the performative self is created and articulated. As the stage director Visconti tells her (in the first-act flashback sequence), ‘‘You are not a village girl. You are Maria Callas playing a village girl.’’ Callas’s ‘‘performance’’ as teacher of a master class is Callas. The diva uses herself to perform; consequently she only is when she performs.

And so it is—or should be—with McNally’s drama: We see what she has become and we learn the process by which she became this way. But this is, of course, not the entire play, nor is the master class, despite the play’s title, the only narrative and dramaturgical means by which the playwright shows us Callas’s character. McNally has demonstrated for us what she has become and taught us the process of acting that has made her this way—one that demands that she wear her emotions on her sleeve and transmit her own life and suffering into her performances through her body and voice on stage. What we do not know—and what opera queens cannot know about a diva, except through gossip columns and the fanciful projections of their own imaginations—is the life lived, the nature of the actual sufferings that the singer transmutes into her performances.

The genius of Master Class is that, once we have seen what Callas has become and learned how she used (and used up) her life to get this way, we don’t actually need to know the life that she lived. But this is precisely what McNally gives us, in the most theatrically stunning sequences of the play: the flashback fantasy sequences, to the accompaniment of Callas’s live recordings of the arias that the student singers are singing. These sequences— brilliant as they are in performance, affording an opportunity for the actor to jump back and forth between Callas’s student years and her triumphant debuts and between her public and private lives— belong to two other genres of play entirely. One genre is the autobiographical one-hander (such as the Lillian Hellman vehicle that Zoe Caldwell played a few years before she created the role of Callas in Master Class), in which the historical figure, through some theatrical pretense (Emily Dickinson inviting us in as neighbors to share her recipes, Truman Capote speaking into a tape recorder for the benefit of a journalist) retells and relives formative events from his or her life.

The other genre to which the flashback sequences of Master Class belongs is, arguably, the largest segment of American twentieth-century dramatic writing, what might best be called the ‘‘psychotherapeutic whodunit.’’ In such plays, a protagonist’s tragic agony or a family’s crippling dysfunction can be traced, as in the Freudian psychoanalytical model, to a single, traumatic event, real or imagined, that is concealed from several of the characters and the audience until late in the play: Biff sees Willy with a prostitute in a cheap hotel in Boston; Mary Tyrone regresses to a point in her life before she discovered her husband to be an alcoholic and, more significantly, before the infant Eugene died of the infection given to him by his older brother Jamie; George and Martha ‘‘kill off’’ the child which the audience and Nick discover to have been invented by them; Dodge and Bradley narrate the story of the child buried in the backyard.

The flashback sequences in Master Class satisfy the whodunit energies generated by the theories of acting taught and practiced by Callas in the realtime framework of the play. If Callas is indeed transforming her real-life suffering, to which she casually alludes repeatedly in her teaching, then the audience naturally desires to learn more about these traumatic experiences: Callas proving herself to her teacher, Callas’s La Scala debut, her final performances at La Scala in defiance of the general manager who was firing her, the patronage of Battista Meneghini, and her abusive relationship with Onassis. Moreover, the flashback sequences confirm the ways that Callas’s personal emotions—shame, desire, vindictiveness, revenge—are channeled into her singing. Just as Lady Macbeth invites the unholy spirit to enter her body, Callas invites the voices of her own life to enter her, through Verdi’s ‘‘infernal music,’’ to ‘‘Come, fill me with your malevolence’’. As the house lights in La Scala come up as Callas finishes her La Somnambula aria on the stage of La Scala, she is able to reverse the audience’s vampiric gaze, to see the eyes of the viewers devouring her performance, and can declare, ‘‘My revenge, my triumph are complete.’’

The logic of the standard American dramaturgical master narrative demands that the audience know the biographical causes of characterological effects. For an audience, to understand the formative traumas is to know the character; for a character, to face the cause is to begin to heal; and, for character and audience alike, theatrically reliving these traumas is both a form of purgation and a fulfillment of the play’s dramaturgical logic. In Master Class, the traumatic event to which the whodunit logic of the play points turns out to be a familiar one in American drama: Callas, having been told by Onassis that the greatest gift she can give him is a child, announces that she is pregnant and is now told by him that she must get rid of the child. As in Long Day’s Journey into Night, Desire Under the Elms, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The American Dream, Buried Child, Talley’s Folly, and countless lesser American plays, the central hidden trauma of the play turns out to be female fertility; the missing center of the play and its character turns out to be, as it is in so many plays, the missing, dead, murdered, unconceived, or aborted baby. Underneath a fascinating metatheatrical drama about art lies a far more conventional American ‘‘dead baby’’ drama. We discover that Callas, the object of the opera queen’s emulation and envy, is herself consumed with envy; and the object of her envy is something common both to American drama and to the mythology of male homosexuality: the womb.

In exploring the phenomenon of the diva, the play’s own logic asks us to resist such easy answers. Callas was willing to create art from the material of her life at great cost. We learn how she did so, and we see the cost. If Master Class is indeed about art and its making out of life, then, ironically, we need to see the life only through the art. But in the flashback sequences and in their reversion to the traditional dead-baby trope, the playwright gives us too much. The sequences are arguably more than just a violation of the playwright’s own metatheatrical fiction and more than just a deviation from his chosen dramaturgical structure in favor of a return to the more traditional structural conventions of the psychotherapeutic whodunit: they are a violation of the theories of art explored in the play. The flashbacks effectively turn the playwright, and the audience, into opera queens: they not only allow us, like the opera queen, to imagine that the person’s real pain can be heard in the diva’s voice; they materially confirm that the pain and its origins is everything we imagine it to be. In narrating and reenacting her life to sounds of her own voice singing Adina or Lady Macbeth on a recording, Callas is effectively lip-synching her own life, just as Stephen lip-synchs to Callas’s Violetta at the end of The Lisbon Traviata Callas not only fulfills the opera queen’s myth of the diva; in Master Class the queen of opera demonstrably becomes an opera queen herself.

Source: Cary M. Mazer, ‘‘Master Class and the Paradox of the Diva,’’ in Terrence McNally: A Casebook, edited by Toby Silverman Zinman, Garland Publishing, 1997, pp. 165–80.


Critical Overview