Themes and Meanings

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Maria Callas was the greatest dramatic soprano of her generation, possessed of an electrifying stage presence and supremely able to communicate the intensity of emotion that opera requires. Her personal life was almost as dramatic as the operas in which she sang. Her fiery temperament led her into feuds with opera managements and rivalries with other singers, while her glamour and her love affair with Onassis made her a regular subject of newspaper society and gossip columns. Much of the drama of Callas’s life is conveyed in Master Class, both in Maria’s personal reminiscences and in her interactions with her students. She is presented as a contradictory figure. She is proud and egotistical, rude and supercilious, yet she is also vulnerable and self-pitying. She is highly dedicated to her art, which she regards as sacred.

However, the character of the diva, although it supplies much of the entertainment in the play, is not its primary focus. Master Class is, most important, an exploration of the nature of dramatic singing; it is the playwright’s interpretation of the secret of Callas’s extraordinary success.

Maria’s instruction to her students falls into two categories that she emphasizes again and again in the play. First, opera singing is a demanding profession. It requires hard work, discipline, and commitment over a lifetime. There are no shortcuts to success. Second, the singer must be able to totally inhabit the role she or he is singing. Whatever the emotion the character is experiencing, whether it is love, hate, rage, jealousy, joy, or sadness, the singer must fully experience it too. In order to do this, she must dig down into her own experience of life. Maria asks Sophie, for example, whether she has ever had her heart broken, because this is what her character, Amina in La Sonnambula, is singing about. Similarly, Maria asks Sharon if there is anything she would kill for—a man, perhaps, or a career? The question is important because murder is what Lady Macbeth is contemplating in the aria that Sharon is about to sing. If Sharon has not felt a similar desire herself, how can she sing about it? “You have to listen to something in yourself to sing this difficult music,” Maria tells Sharon. Otherwise, the singer will merely produce a sequence of notes, which, even if technically correct, will fall short of what the operatic genre requires.

Maria’s instruction calls on a concept developed by acting coach Lee Strasberg, known as “emotional memory,” a concept in turn based on the “method” system of acting of the renowned director Konstantin Stanislavsky. The technique of emotional memory requires the actor to recall with his or her senses the precise atmosphere of a past activity. With this recall comes the emotion associated with the occasion. The recovered emotion is used by the actor (or the dramatic singer) as the equivalent of the emotion being experienced by the character in the play.


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Creating Art
Although the play touches on many of the main events of Maria Callas’s life, it is not in essence a biographical portrait. Rather, it is an exploration of the nature of artistic creation, as applied to operatic singing and acting. Maria makes clear that art is serious business that cannot be done by half measures; it demands total commitment on the part of the singer/actress. Being an opera singer can never be an easy career; the singer must give everything to the demands of her craft. This means intense discipline over a lifetime.

In addition to total commitment, the singer must be able to...

(This entire section contains 752 words.)

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call on resources within herself that will enable her to fully inhabit whatever role she is playing. Since the essence of opera is raw emotion, she must be able to fully experience all the emotions felt by the character—joy, sadness, love, hate, jealousy, rage. It is not enough merely to sing the words and get the notes right. ‘‘It’s not a note we’re after here,’’ says Maria to her student Sophie, ‘‘It’s a stab of pain.’’

Since Maria emphasizes again and again that her art consists not only of vocal technique but of ‘‘Feeling, feeling, feeling,’’ the question arises of how an artist can capture the feeling, say, of a character like Amina in La Sonnambula, who has lost the man she loves. Maria makes clear that the singer must have some life experience behind her before she can successfully create the role. She must have experienced the same emotions herself, in her own circumstances. Maria constantly nags the students about whether they really know what they are singing about, and she is not inquiring merely about their knowledge of Italian. She asks Sophie whether she has ever had her heart broken, as Amina has, because no one to whom this experience is foreign could express the passion required in the role.

It is the same when Maria coaches Sharon. Is there anything, Maria quizzes her, she would kill for—a man, perhaps, or a career? She asks because that is exactly what Lady Macbeth is contemplating in the aria that Sharon is about to sing. If Sharon has not felt such desire herself, how can she sing about it? When Sharon replies that she has never really thought about such matters, Maria says that is because she is young. Life will eventually teach her, although in Maria’s view, art is even harder to master than life. The point Maria wishes to make is that the singer must reach down into the depths of her psyche to access those times in her life when she felt similar emotions. ‘‘You have to listen to something in yourself to sing this difficult music,’’ she tells Sharon. What she is alluding to, whether consciously or not, is a concept developed by acting teacher Lee Strasberg, known as ‘‘emotional memory,’’ based on the work of Konstantin Stanislavski (1863–1938) and his ‘‘method’’ system of acting. The technique of emotional memory focuses on recalling the sensory atmosphere of a past activity in order to recapture the emotion associated with it. That recovered emotion can then be used by the actor as the equivalent of the emotion being experienced by the character in the play. This is one reason why, for example, Maria sets the scene of the tenor’s aria in praise of Tosca, telling him that it is ten o’clock on a beautiful spring morning and that he made love all night to Tosca, the most beautiful woman in Rome. When the tenor points out that the score says nothing about such things, Maria replies, ‘‘It should say it in your imagination. Otherwise you have notes, nothing but notes.’’

At the heart of this is a paradox. By digging deeper into herself, the singer can in fact transcend herself. The artistic imagination transforms the singer into a kind of spiritual medium who can identify absolutely with the fictional character she is portraying. ‘‘When I sang Medea I could feel the stones of Epidaurus beneath the wooden floorboards at La Scala,’’ says Maria. She found for herself a ‘‘direct line’’ to the character, as if the woman she was portraying were a real person. It is not a matter of acting, a word that Maria dislikes, but of being. (Medea is an opera by Italian composer Luigi Cherubini based on a play by the Greek dramatist Euripides. Callas was famous for her performances as Medea.)