Maria, Not Callas

Terrence McNally's
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"ART is domination. It's making people think that for that precise moment in time there is only one way, one voice. Yours."
So says Maria Callas in play exposing the bold hoax that none but the most exceptional practitioners are able to pull off. When Zoe Caldwell introduced the play on Broadway, nearly two years ago, she herself perpetrated that hoax, for which she was rewarded, quite deservedly, with the fourth Tony Award of her career. Whatever one's view of the play (and lasting sentiment for and against the late diva ensured that judgments would be fierce), the role of Maria was Caldwell's property. She was a python, humorless and stern, mesmerizing in her refusal to countenance any form of compromise. Her reading was definitive, pre-emptive, exhausting all possibilities. When she departed the vehicle, it would surely fall apart.

Or so it seemed, which is exactly what would spur an ambitious actress to try to impose her own way. What is performance history, after all, but the endlessly self-renewing saga of dethronement? Caldwell left Master Class on June 29, 1996, at just the time of year when all but the hardiest Broadway shows wither and die, yet the New York production continued to play to good houses until this past June 28, chalking up more than 600 performances. Beyond Broadway the play has had some forty productions abroad, as far afield as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Croatia, Estonia, France, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Turkey, and Yugoslavia, not to mention nine in Germany alone. Never mind the slew of productions by American regional, stock, and amateur companies, which could soon number in the dozens.

Since Caldwell, stars true and false have been stalking Master Class the way ballerinas do Swan Lake, and what at first seemed fixed now proves to be fluid. Textual variants have been creeping in: St. Patrick's is bumped for Notre Dame, Pavarotti anachronistically for Richard Tucker. No harm is done. This is the process by which classics are born.

Of the many second-generation Marias I have seen five: Patti LuPone, who took over from Caldwell on Broadway; Dixie Carter, who succeeded LuPone; Faye Dunaway, making the national tour with the movie rights in her pocket, hitting Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Dayton, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and a score of other cities; the Fellini protégée Rossella Falk, in Milan; and Truffaut's muse Fanny Ardant, in Paris. Of all the actresses it is Ardant who yields not an inch to Caldwell, and she has the added advantage of Roman Polanski's stylish, psychologically richer production. Patti LuPone runs Caldwell and Ardant a close second, with Carter a respectable third. Falk and Dunaway are nowhere in sight, yet even they have light to shed on the role's multifarious -- though not unlimited -- possibilities.

"Art is domination." As the example of the historic Callas teaches us, great performers do not inherit. They take charge; therein lies whatever authority they have. Known to legions of worshippers as La Divina, Callas embodied an astonishing variety of tragic heroines, from the bel canto period through verismo, with such conviction that her readings remain touchstones even now -- twenty years after her death, more than thirty years since her last theatrical appearance, and forty years since her heyday. Remastered and repackaged over and over (currently in a commemorative twenty-volume set from EMI), her albums remain best sellers while those of other divas, contemporary and past, come and go. Many listeners recognize her timbre and intensity of expression from a single recorded note; at least one critic asserts, perfectly credibly, that in certain cases Callas can be identified by a single intake of breath. Her charisma, onstage and off, blazes in photographs, too, as exhibits and books have proved time and again. And we should not discount the buzz of her tempestuous personal life -- crowned by an adulterous romance with Aristotle Onassis, who entertained her, her husband, the Winston Churchills, and the Gianni Agnellis on his yacht in the presence of the apparently unruffled first Mrs. Onassis. When Jacqueline Kennedy became the second Mrs. Onassis, Callas was cut loose. The recent coffee-table volume Callas: Images of a Legend is chockablock with photographs as deeply branded in the memory of music lovers as those of the Kennedy assassination, the first landing on the moon, and the little Vietnamese girl burned by napalm.

Can such a personality, so much larger than life, be encompassed in a play? By some lights McNally is riding on the real-life diva's notoriety, and should more properly have invented a diva whose place in the firmament he would have been at liberty to define. But can one invent the North Star? No less a judge than Leonard Bernstein pronounced Callas the world's greatest artist. The reality of her achievement is a point of reference impossible to make up. The character that McNally calls Maria (as shall I) shares most biographical particulars with the historical diva (whom I shall continue to call Callas). But McNally's purposes in Master Class are only incidentally documentary. Above all the play is a highly personal, deeply perceptive meditation on the wellsprings and the consequences of supremacy in art. Without the real-life example McNally would in effect have been writing science fiction.


SINCE Aeschylus dreamed up The Persians, playwrights beyond number have spun fantasies about historic figures. Why should performers be exempt? On stage and at the movies we have seen actors play Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Lon Chaney, Charlie Chaplin, Isadora Duncan, and Vaslav Nijinsky, to name just a few. The resurrection usually incorporates an anthology of the artist's greatest moments -- frequently the whole point of the exercise, affording the actor a shortcut to an ersatz glory. McNally gives the actress playing Maria no such break. "No one can sing like Maria Callas," Maria declares, speaking for her creator. McNally drives the point home with authentic Callas recordings, using the inimitable voice as a soundscape for two bravura monologues. In these passages the actress gets to show what she can do, impersonating a raft of absent characters: Callas's unromantic, doggedly devoted husband, the brick-factory owner Giovanni Battista Meneghini, nearly thirty years her senior; her coarse, sensualist lover, Aristotle Onassis; Elvira de Hidalgo, the teacher whose approval she craved; and assorted snotty backstage personnel.

McNally gives Maria a single line to sing, and that with strategic, destructive intent. The opera scene she is demonstrating to a student begins, strikingly and quite exceptionally, with speech: it is the entrance of Verdi's Lady Macbeth, who reads her husband's letter about the witches before launching into song, as Maria does in the heat of the moment. "Ambizioso spirto tu sei, Macbetto" is the line: "Ambitious thou art, Macbeth." "What comes out is a cracked and broken thing," McNally writes in the stage direction. "A voice in ruins. It is a terrible moment." Yes -- though a spectator in the theater, not privy to the editorializing, might well think it terrible for a different reason. In the original production Caldwell's voice was flatly incredible as the cracked and broken instrument of someone who had at any time been a singer.


CALLAS, of course, actually did conduct a famous series of twenty-three master classes, with twenty-five students, at Juilliard in 1971. People who were there (I was not) remember the classes as the sensation of the musical season, though they cannot possibly have been of much interest to readers of gossip columns. Unlike Maria, who is constantly wallowing in self-serving reminiscence and resentfully spilling beans, Callas was thoroughly prepared, rigorously technical, demanding, and relentlessly focused on the job at hand. Her concerns were breath control, diction, accents, phrasing, tempo, scales, trills. Anyone who went hoping for dish would soon have fled.

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