“It’s not about me”, says Maria Callas (Tyne Daly) as she steals the limelight from one of her students during Master Class. It would be tempting to call the great opera diva a liar, and it’s true she has a clear need to be adored, but the brilliance of Terrence McNally’s play and Daly’s performance is that it captures the knotted complexity beneath the surface, capturing the way she used her grit, honesty and turbulent past to tap into truth of her roles and make her performances powerfully real.
There’s little doubt she had plenty of life experience to draw on. Born in the 1920s to parents pressurised by war time poverty, she soon found herself living with a mother who had never wanted a second child at all. She threw herself into music with a passionate obsession and rose to become one of the greatest opera singers of all time, with an ability to produce subtle, well-rounded performances that has rarely been equalled. En route she married a wealthy industrialist 30 years her senior and later one of the richest men in the world, the Greek tycoon Onassis. But in the 1960s her voice and husband deserted her, leaving her bereft. She died at just 53.
McNally’s play focuses around a series of master classes that she gave in 1971 for aspiring opera singers, the audience engaged by the cast as if we were watching the class itself. Callas’s brutal honesty dissects each of the three arias in turn; of Sophie De Palma (Dianne Pilkington) she proclaims: “I respond to what I feel and the thought of seeing you repulses me”. Through her critique she recollects her own performances, revealing her troubled past and the basis of her naturalistic performances.
Daly’s performance is a tour de force, beautifully capturing the unerring honesty of Callas. She gives the impression of a woman who has spent her whole life giving her all to opera, to laying herself bare on stage and feeding every ounce of feeling into her voice. The result is a woman who is utterly dominating but teetering on implosion; she hurls “notes like thunderbolts” and in the process “ends up empty”.
Throughout Daly is ably supported by a cast of multi-talented actors, with Naomi O’Connell as Sharon Graham particularly standing out. Under the tutelage of Callas her Lady Macbeth has a beautiful power and clarity to it, seamlessly dove tailing into Callas’s reminiscing of her own performance and the desire for success and the love of her husband that fuelled it.
Thomas Lynch and David Lander’s design does much to help transport us between the classroom and Callas’s recollections, but in the end this is Tyne Daly’s production and, as Maria Callas herself would have wanted, she dominates it.