The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Master Class is based on the master classes given by the renowned real-life opera singer Maria Callas at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City in 1971 and 1972. In the play’s two acts, Maria’s interactions with her students are interspersed with reminiscences of her stormy life.

After Maria enters, wearing expensive clothes, she tells the audience there must be no applause because this is a working session. Music, she says, is a demanding discipline. There are no short cuts to success. She tells of how, during World War II, she used to walk to the conservatory and back every day, even though she had no proper shoes. Then she subjects her accompanist to some withering remarks that reveal her abrupt and imperious manner, after which she turns her attention to her first student, a young soprano named Sophie de Palma. Maria criticizes her appearance and tells her to get over her nerves. Sophie manages only to sing the first word of her chosen aria, from La Sonnambula (1831) by the Italian composer Vicenzo Bellini, before Maria interrupts. It is not the only time she interrupts, as she tries to get Sophie to listen to the music and to feel the true emotions of the character, the passion behind the words. She berates the hapless student for not having a pencil handy to take notes and for not knowing the names of all the great sopranos.

As Sophie begins to sing, Maria reminisces about her own performance as a recording of Maria Callas is played. She recalls her relationship with the wealthy Greek businessman Aristotle Onassis. Imitating his crude manner of speaking, she has him say that it was because...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The two acts of Master Class have a similar structure. In act 1, Maria’s session with her first student is followed by a monologue in which Maria recalls significant moments in her life, including the moment when her lover Onassis asked her to bear his child and that of her triumphs at La Scala. The reminiscence forms the climax of the act. It is sparked by the aria that her student has been attempting, and this is also the cue for a recording of Maria Callas to be played, singing the same aria. Act 2 follows in parallel fashion: Maria’s sessions with her two students are followed by a monologue, which again features Onassis and La Scala, and which also serves as the climax of the act. As in act 1, a recording of Callas plays, prompted by the same circumstances. The similarity in structure between the two acts gives shape to a play which has no plot in the usual sense of the word.

Since Maria is the only character who is developed fully, the success of the production rests on the ability of the actress who plays Maria. It is a demanding role, which was ably performed by Zoë Caldwell in the original production. She fully captured the quirky, domineering yet fragile nature of the diva.

Another dramatic device, appropriately enough given the subject matter, is music. Two Callas recordings are played, and the students also sing arias onstage. A poignant theatrical moment that illustrates the centrality of singing comes when Maria (the character onstage, that is, not Maria Callas on the recordings) attempts to sing a single line of music. She fails dismally; the stage directions read, “What comes out is a cracked and broken thing. A voice in ruins. It is a terrible moment.” It is a reminder to the audience of the tragedy of Callas’s life. Although she was blessed with a wonderfully expressive voice, by the time she was giving her master classes in 1971, it was only a shadow of its former glory.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Maria Callas
Maria Callas was by common consent the greatest dramatic soprano of her generation, excelling in the Italian bel...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Both acts share the same basic structure. In its essentials, act one consists of Maria’s interaction with the first...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Near the end of the play, Sharon says to Maria, ‘‘I don’t like you.’’ What is your reaction to Maria? Do you like her or dislike...

(The entire section is 203 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

McNally’s play Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994) arose from McNally’s desire to write about what it was like to be a gay man in...

(The entire section is 214 words.)


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Ardoin, John. Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes. Portland, Oreg.: Amadeus Press, 1998.

Brustein, Robert. “Stars and Their Gasses.” The New Republic 214 (February 5, 1996): 27-28.

Franklin, Nancy. “Goddesses.” The New Yorker 71 (November 27, 1995): 109-111.

Gurewitsch, Matthew. “Maria, Not Callas.” Atlantic Monthly 280 (October, 1997): 102-107.

Kroll, Jack. “Concerto for Diva: Master Class.” Newsweek 126 (November 13, 1995): 85.

Zinman, Toby Silverman, ed. Terrence McNally: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Ardoin, John, ‘‘Callas and the Juilliard Master Classes,’’ in Terrence McNally: A Casebook, edited...

(The entire section is 345 words.)