In the 1970s, the legendary opera singer Maria Callas gave a series of opera masterclasses at Julliard University in the USA. The play traces the course of one of these classes, as Callas wrestles with her own past and the demons which haunt her while destroying the hopes and dreams of her unlucky students.
Maria Callas – Tyne Daly
Stagehand – Gerard Carey
Emmanuel Weinstock – Jeremy Cohen
Sharon Graham – Naomi O’Connell
Sophie de Palma – Dianne Pilkington
Anthony Candolino – Garrett Sorenson
Written by – Terence McNally
Set – Thomas Lynch
Costumes – Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting – David Lander
OK – here it comes. If you only go to the theatre once this year, make it this. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such a wonderful show. I’m a huge fan of Tyne Daly anyway, and having seen the other half of the partnership late last year, was looking forward to this evening immensely. On paper, the play isn’t much, but you really do get your money’s worth – and more. Daly truly inhabits the role of the fearsome Maria Callas, a brilliant yet tragically flawed woman. Stalking the stage like some elegantly dressed raven, she tears her victims into emotional shreds and feeds on their flesh, all the while unwittingly exposing her own insecurities and hate.
The set-up of the play is very clever – we, the audience, are playing a part in the action. Its immediately clear that we are not just passive observers but actually there in the lecture hall to observe, learn and have our personal fashion choices subjected to withering scorn (don’t sit in the front row!). Callas/Daly orders us about, instructing how and when to applaud (or not) and takes the reins almost from the very beginning:
“So. How is everyone? Can you hear me? I don't believe in microphones. Singing is first of all about projection. So is speech. People are forgetting how to listen. They want everything blasted at them. Listening takes concentration. If you can't hear me, it's your fault. You're not concentrating.”
This woman is IN CHARGE, and she ain’t gonna let us forget it. In fact, so caught up did I become in the action that Daly and the Vaudeville receded and I was actually there, at Julliard, and not daring to applaud because Ms. Callas had forbidden it. The three hapless students just become conduits for her own memories and recollections, and literally fade from the stage on several occasions as the stage at the Vaudeville/lecture hall at Julliard become the stage of La Scala, Milan where Callas is fighting her art, her audience and her upbringing every step of the way.
"A performance is a struggle. You have to win. The audience is the enemy. We have to bring you to your knees because we're right...Dominate them...Art is domination".
What is doubly clever is that, if you actually pay attention to Daly/Callas, you may very well learn something about the art of theatre and how to work the stage; Callas discusses making an entrance, holding the focus of the audience (in one wonderful moment, Callas retires to her seat and drinks from a glass while one of the students is preparing to sing and comments aside sardonically “Look, I’m simply drinking a glass of water and I still have presence”), interpreting the music and building a character. You’re unlikely to remember most of this, however, as you either dissolve in a welter of laughter or are held completely spellbound when Daly becomes caught up in her reveries of appearing in La Sonambula and Macbeth. Take a pencil.
Of course, every monster needs victims, and Daly has five – a stagehand who refuses to be impressed, an adoring accompanist, a mediocre soprano, an arrogant tenor and a second soprano who is well on her way to becoming just as much a monster as Callas herself and who isn’t willing to play the role of victim. Gerard Carey plays the first, but inhabits such a tiny character that little can really be said about it. Jeremy Cohen makes a very good job out of the thankless role of the accompanist, and I hope Daly buys him a red sweater at the end of the run (an in joke – go and see the show). As the first of the sopranos, Dianne Pilkington makes a good impression at first, (hilariously getting only as far as “Oooooohhhhh……” in her aria before being peremptorily halted in her tracks by Callas) but is unfortunate in that her role is swiftly forgotten once Garrett Sorenson’s bumptious tenor and Naomi O’Connell’s fire-breathing soprano appear. Both actors are legitimate singers in their own right and desevedly get applause for some breathtaking vocal fireworks. But its Daly who – rightly – bestrides the show like a colossus and makes it her very own. This woman can act. She simply becomes Maria Callas. Don’t take my word for it. Just buy yourself a ticket and see for yourself. In fact, buy two tickets – one for yourself and one for me, because I’d gladly go see this again. Tomorrow.
This was a preview performance. Reviews will be posted when they become available.