The Play

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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 of his connection to her that people began to respect him in a way that they had not formerly done. He boasts of his wealth and wants her to end her singing career and have his child. Then Maria recalls with a feeling of triumph her great performances at La Scala in Milan, and how she had succeeded against all the odds.

In act 2, the next student, Sharon Graham, enters. She is a soprano who is to sing one of Lady Macbeth’s arias from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth (1847). Maria tells her to go off the stage and reenter in character, and she also mentions that Sharon’s gown is inappropriate for the occasion. Sharon exits but does not return, and Maria realizes she has hurt the student’s feelings. Yet, she is unapologetic.

The next student is Anthony Candolino, a tenor. Like the other students, he receives his share of criticism from Maria, who tries to send him home. He persists, and when he finally sings an aria from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca (1900), Maria is enthralled.

After this, Sharon returns, claiming that she was sick. She tries once more to sing Lady Macbeth’s aria, but again Maria stops her and gives her some coaching about how to sing with passion. She sends Sharon backstage and then summons her again to repeat the scene. This time the audience hears not Sharon but a recording of Maria Callas singing the same piece in a live performance from 1952. As she listens, Maria recalls some dramatic moments from her life, including her debut at La Scala, in which she had thirty-seven curtain calls; the moment she told her husband Battista Meneghini that she would be marrying Onassis; the time when Onassis bullied her into aborting their baby; and the day she was fired at La Scala.

When the recording of Callas ends, Maria tells Sharon she should work on music...

(This entire section contains 674 words.)

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more appropriate to her limitations. Upset, Sharon lashes out at Maria, telling her she can no longer sing and is envious of anyone younger who can. She leaves.

The play ends with Maria’s reflections. She says that she has tried to communicate her beliefs about what the artist and musician do. Her advice to the singer is to think of the expression of the words, practice good diction, and express deep feelings.

Dramatic Devices

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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

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Maria Callas Maria Callas was by common consent the greatest dramatic soprano of her generation, excelling in the Italian bel canto repertoire. She had a mesmerizing stage presence, and although many regarded her voice as flawed, she could communicate intensity and emotion as no other soprano could. Her personal life was scarcely less dramatic than the operatic roles she played, and there were well publicized incidents involving her legendary fiery temperament, her feuds with opera managements, her rivalries with other singers, and her love affairs.

Callas was born in New York in 1923. She was American by birth and early upbringing, but her parents were Greek, and in 1937 she and her mother left the United States for Greece. Callas was also Italian by virtue of her marriage to Giovanni Battista Meneghini, which lasted from 1949 to 1959.

In Greece, Callas became a pupil of the soprano Elvira de Hidalgo at the Athens Conservatory. She made her operatic debut as Tosca at the Athens Opera in 1941, and she took on other roles over the next three years. In 1945, Callas returned to New York, where she was engaged by Giovanni Zenatello for Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda at Verona in 1947. This appearance was in effect the beginning of Callas’s career, and in Italy she was soon singing major roles in operas by Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini. Gradually, under the guidance of Italian conductor Tullio Serafin, she began to concentrate on earlier Italian opera. She made a name for herself singing Violetta in La Traviata, Gilda in Rigoletto, Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, Amina in La Sonnambula, and Norma in Bellini’s opera of that name, as well as in Tosca. She made her debut at La Scala in Aida in 1950; her first appearances in London (1952), Chicago (1954), and New York (1956) were in Norma.

By this time, Callas was world famous and had become an extremely controversial figure, known for her great triumphs on the stage but also for her explosive, sometimes quarrelsome personality and her backstage disputes. She was the center of media attention wherever she went, and her rivalry with fellow soprano Renata Tebaldi kept the gossip columnists busy. Callas once said that the difference between her and Tebaldi was the difference between champagne and Coca-Cola. She was known for withdrawing from performances at the last minute, and on many occasions there were factions of the audience that were openly hostile to her. Callas caused one of the greatest scandals in operatic history in January 1958, when she attempted to sing Norma in Rome while suffering from bronchitis. In the audience were the Italian president and other dignitaries. Heckled by the audience, Callas struggled through the first act and then abandoned her performance. The debacle produced an avalanche of negative publicity.

In 1959, Callas left her elderly husband for Aristotle Onassis, but in the mid-1960s Onassis abandoned her for Jacqueline Kennedy, whom he married in 1968.

Troubled by difficulties with her voice, Callas withdrew gradually from the operatic stage. She gave her final performance as Tosca at Covent Garden in 1965. In 1971–72, she gave a series of Master Classes in New York, and in 1973 and 1974 she emerged from retirement to make a concert tour with her former colleague, Giuseppe di Stefano.

Callas died in Paris in 1977 at the age of fifty-three.

Callas’s Master Classes at Juilliard Callas conducted twenty-three two-hour opera Master Classes at the Juilliard School of Music in New York from October 1971 to March 1972. She had not sung in public for six years, and her voice was not the great instrument it once had been. Doing the Master Classes was a way of overcoming her terror of performing by incorporating singing as part of her teaching.

There were twenty-five students in the Master Class and a paying audience that included some of the great names in opera. Callas did not allow applause from the audience, saying on one occasion (captured in the play), ‘‘None of that. We are here to work.’’ Callas scholar John Ardoin writes in ‘‘Callas and the Juilliard Master Classes,’’ ‘‘And work she did—serious concentrated, dedicated work that placed her, her voice, her personality, and her ideas squarely at the service of her students. . . . This was no ego trip.’’ In the real-life Master Class, Callas did not offer insulting comments about other singers or indulge in personal reminiscences or displays of ill temper, as she does in McNally’s play, although she did on one occasion tell a student that she was inappropriately dressed. However, much of the advice she gave conformed to the sentiments McNally gives her in Master Class. Arianna Stassinopoulos, in her biography of the singer, reports that Callas said to a soprano who had just sung one of Gilda’s arias from Verdi’s Rigoletto, ‘‘Gilda is a passionate girl, you know; you must convey to the audience all her palpitating emotion before you even begin to sing.’’ Only one of the three arias that figure in Master Class was on Callas’s syllabus at Juilliard, and that was the tenor aria from Tosca. In the play, Maria says she never really listened to that aria, but the Master Class shows clearly that the real-life Callas knew it extremely well.

Callas was always well prepared for her class, having sung earlier in the day, with her accompanist, all the arias that were to be covered in the session. Sometimes she would sing during the class. On some days, the voice was only a shadow of what it had been, but (unlike the dramatic moment in the play when Maria’s voice fails her), Callas would simply say, as Ardoin reports, ‘‘I’m not in voice today’’ and move on without fuss. At other times, her voice would attain its characteristic splendor.

At her last class, Callas said good-bye in almost exactly the words that McNally gives her in the final paragraph of her last speech in Master Class. In his early version of the script in 1994, the entire farewell speech was virtually word for word what Callas had said, but McNally altered the speech in his revisions.

Literary Style

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Structure Both acts share the same basic structure. In its essentials, act one consists of Maria’s interaction with the first student, the soprano Sophie de Palma, followed by a long monologue in which Maria recalls events from her life. In the original New York production, Zoe Caldwell, who played Maria, stood alone in the light on a darkened stage for this reminiscence, which includes her relationship with Aristotle Onassis, during which he asks her to bear his child, and one of her great triumphs at La Scala. As La Scala is recalled, the interior of the famous opera house is projected on the back of the stage. The entire reminiscence is accompanied by a recording of the historical Maria Callas singing the same aria (Amina’s from La Sonnambula) that Sophie has been attempting. Act two contains Maria’s session with the second young soprano, Sharon Graham, which is split into two sections, before and after her session with the tenor, Anthony Candolino. This act reaches its climax with the same device that was used in act one. It is an even longer monologue this time, as Maria imagines herself in an earlier period of her life, in her first marriage, then again with Onassis, and finally once more at La Scala, although in different circumstances. Continuing the parallelism with act one, she recalls how she became pregnant with Onassis’s child (just as he had asked her to in act one). The final parallel is that, as in act one, a recording of Callas plays, and again she is singing the same aria (Lady Macbeth’s) that the student had been attempting. The transition is effected through a change in lighting.

The Leading Role Since the play is virtually a one-woman show, with the other characters brought in mostly as foils so that Maria can reveal her artistic personality and her views about singing and acting, the success of the production rests on the ability of the actress who plays Maria to capture the imperious, querulous, and tragic essence of the character. Not only this, she also needs to impersonate convincingly various figures from Maria’s life, such as her first husband, her lover Onassis, and her teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo. The actress must also be able to speak the small amount of Italian in the play in a convincing and accurate manner.

Music Obviously, in a play about a legendary opera diva, music is of central importance. Not only are two Callas recordings played, but the tenor and soprano sing arias on stage (the latter does not complete hers). The centrality of singing, and the tragedy of Callas, whose voice deserted her at a comparatively young age, is forcefully made in the only line of music that Maria herself sings in the entire play. This comes midway through act two, and it is the opening of Lady Macbeth’s aria, after she has read the letter. The stage directions read, ‘‘What comes out is a cracked and broken thing. A voice in ruins. It is a terrible moment.’’ The audience is thus given a contrast to the glorious voice on the recordings and so becomes aware of its fragility— as well as the tragic vulnerability of the character on stage to whom the voice belongs.


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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

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Sources Ardoin, John, ‘‘Callas and the Juilliard Master Classes,’’ in Terrence McNally: A Casebook, edited by Toby Silverman Zinman, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997, pp. 157–63.

———, Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes, Amadeus Press, 1998, p. 39.

———, The Callas Legacy: A Biography of a Career, rev. ed., Charles Scribner’s Sons, p. 210.

Canby, Vincent, ‘‘Patti LuPone’s Arrival Changes the Effect of McNally’s Script,’’ in the New York Times, July 26, 1996, Section C, Column 1, p. 3.

Douglas, Nigel, More Legendary Voices, Andre Deutsch, 1990, p. 22.

Franklin, Nancy, ‘‘Goddesses,’’ in the New Yorker, November 27, 1995, pp. 109–11.

Gurewitsch, Matthew, ‘‘Maria, Not Callas,’’ in Atlantic Monthly, October 1997, pp. 102–07.

Klein, Alvin, ‘‘The Teacher as Star of the Class,’’ in the New York Times, October 19, 1997, Section 14CN, Column 4, p. 8.

Leithauser, Brad, ‘‘Legends of the Fall’’ in Time, November 20, 1995, p. 121.

Stassinopoulos, Arianna, Maria Callas: The Woman behind the Legend, Simon and Schuster, 1981, pp. 268, 314.

Further Reading Brustein, Robert, ‘‘Master Class,’’ in the New Republic, February 5, 1996, pp. 27–28. Brustein’s review was one of the few negative reviews of the play. Brustein regards it as capably written, but forgettable, although it does have some value as a tribute to Callas.

Christianssen, Rupert, Prima Donna, Pimlico, 1995, pp. 266–98. Calling Callas a ‘‘naïve genius,’’ Christianssen analyzes the Callas revolution in terms of the singing tradition she inherited, the changes she wrought, and her influence on sopranos who followed.

Kroll, Jack, ‘‘Master Class,’’ in Newsweek, November 13, 1995, p. 85. Kroll’s review is a laudatory review that describes the play as a profile in courage, with Zoe Caldwell, as Callas, putting on a virtuoso performance to remember.

Torrens, James S., ‘‘Master Class,’’ in America, February 17, 1996, p. 30. Another review that is full of praise for what Torrens calls the most exciting play of the Broadway season. McNally’s love of opera finds its perfect vehicle.

Zinman, Toby Silverman, ed., Terrence McNally: A Casebook, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997. This text contains interviews with Zoe Caldwell and McNally, as well as Cary M. Mazer’s article, ‘‘Master Class and the Paradox of the Diva,’’ in which he discusses what he sees as paradoxes and contradictions in what Maria teaches her students.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide