Maria, Not Callas

Terrence McNally's Master Class deliberately plays fast and loose with historical fact in search of artistic truth.

"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.

The classes were taped, and Maria Callas at Juilliard (EMI), a three-CD compilation (interspersed with arias culled from the extensive Callas discography), is available. The scholar John Ardoin published a more inclusive, expertly assembled book of transcripts, Callas at Juilliard, which is rich in musical examples. Neither source is anything like the play. On the tapes we hear a lot of singing, both from the students and from Callas; hers is seldom dulcet but always authoritative. There is not much talking, and Callas does most of that, limiting herself in the main to concise technical corrections. In the book the students vanish almost completely.

The displays of temperament, personal revelations, and lordly putdowns of the students that make McNally's script so playable are mostly pure invention. So, actually, are the musical and dramatic analyses. Of Maria's three "victims" only the tenor comes in with an aria represented on the Juilliard syllabus. Callas was especially brief and clinical on the subject of this aria, but it moves Maria to the brink of tears. With the Callas specialties brought in by the play's two sopranos, McNally is working on a clean slate.

Master Class, then, is virtually pure fabrication, for all its harping on the theme of authenticity — and purposely so. McNally might have included, but did not, Callas's frequent injunction to let emotion register on the face while singing a phrase, and even before; i this is hard-won theatrical wisdom that audiences would instantly understand. But giving an aesthetic education of this sort is not McNally's concern. One rare passage in which Maria does quote Callas is perfectly in character: she is telling a student to wear a longer skirt, or slacks, because "the public that looks at you from down there sees a little more of you than you might want." "Eh?" she continues. "It's no use now. You should have thought of it before." On a more solemn note, Callas's spare farewell to the students is also preserved essentially intact.

Whether I continue singing or not doesn't matter. Besides, it's all there in the recordings. What matters is that you use whatever you have learned wisely. Think of the expression of the words, of good diction, and of your own deep feelings. The only thanks I ask is that you sing properly and honestly. If you do this, I will feel repaid. Well, that's that.

Except for the two sentences in italics, this passage from the play matches Ardoin's transcript word for word. The remark about the recordings is also authentic, although interpolated. As for the exit line, untranscribed by Ardoin, it is heard on the CD, followed by explosive applause.

McNally is in search of a seamless imaginative truth. On the face of it, not much "happens" in Master Class. Maria arrives, vamps the audience (we have a role to play as auditors), and eventually settles down to the business at hand. There is some byplay with the rehearsal pianist and with a stagehand. Otherwise, for the entire first act Maria torments a timid soprano who tries her luck with Amina's heartbroken lament from Bellini's La Sonnambula, a celebrated Callas vehicle. The second act is split between a cocky tenor, who after a clownish beginning unexpectedly touches a chord in Maria with "Recondita armonia," from Puccini's Tosca; and a second soprano, this one bold and overdressed, who comes in with the letter scene from Verdi's Macbeth, another Callas specialty. Between volleys of sarcasm, condescension, and criticism, very seldom leavened with encouragement, Maria frequently digresses, revisiting her life and career. Toward the end of each act she has a tremendous monologue; the room vanishes as the music plunges her into a violent maelstrom of memory.

The failure of Maria's first victim to bring a pencil to class prompts a reminiscence of all but epiphanic force.

Maria: At the conservatory Madame de Hidalgo never once had to ask me if I had a pencil. And this was during the war, when a pencil wasn't something you just picked up at the five and ten. Oh no, no, no, no. A pencil meant something. It was a choice over something else. You either had a pencil or an orange. I always had a pencil. I never had an orange. And I love oranges. I knew one day I would have all the oranges I could want, but that didn't make the wanting them any less.

Have you ever been hungry?

Soprano: Not like that.

Maria: It's. It's something you remember. Always. In some part of you.

In the second act, in the context of Macbeth, Maria asks the other soprano, "Is there anything you would kill for, Sharon? ... A man, a career?" (Sharon doesn't think so.) Hunger and willingness to kill: these are what make Maria who she is. Hunger, for more than oranges, fueled her art. What has destroyed her life is a love great enough to kill for. As the second grand monologue reveals, Maria has killed, not for her career but for a man: for Onassis, the love of her life, who has rebuffed her tenderness, saying he gives love only to his children. "Have a child of mine," he scoffs, "and I will love him." When she conceives, Onassis tells her to have an abortion. To keep him, she complies. He dumps her anyway.

The importance of the pregnancy in McNally's scheme is paramount, forging the link to the character with whom Maria most identifies, both as a woman and as an artist: Medea.

"Ho dato tutto a te." Medea sings that to Jason when she learns he's abandoning her for another woman. A younger woman. A woman of importance. A princess. "Ho dato tutto a te." "I gave everything for you. Everything." That's what we artists do for people.

Though not exact, the parallels are close enough. Medea, we recall, murdered her brother for love of Jason, and later killed her own children for revenge on Jason. The princess, of course, is Jacqueline Kennedy. And Maria's climactic line in her second monologue, following her desperate cry to Onassis to marry her, is none other than Medea's: "Ho dato tutto a te." Earlier in Master Class, Maria has used those words to make another point: "Anyone's feelings can be hurt. Only an artist can say 'Ho dato tutto a te' center stage at La Scala and even Leonard Bernstein forgets he's Leonard Bernstein and listens to you." Unconditional devotion, unconditional sacrifice: these are the core of her life and her art. How hard it is to distinguish the two.

"Ho dato tutto a te." Few plays hinge on a line as Master Class does on this one. Indeed, it is in the trajectory to the final utterance of this line, and in the reading of the line when it comes, that every actress I have seen in the part of Maria has proved (or not) her worth. Leonard Foglia, who has directed all the Broadway casts and Dunaway's touring ensemble as well, has given his actresses considerable latitude to succeed or fail on their own terms. The keynote of Caldwell's performance, struck ringingly in that line, was towering, contemptuous, ice-cold rage. LuPone, Broadway's original Evita, came to Maria a diva burned by her ouster from Sunset Boulevard — a real-life humiliation that may have accounted in part for her pervasive attitude of plucky defiance. A younger, more flirtatious Maria, she brought forth in the climactic cry a blaze of despair and loss. Ardant's reading was at once the most enigmatic and the most haunting: she shed tears, yet her features were open, beaming, with the same lonely, Vestal-like rapture that suffused her both when her Maria spoke of her art and also — to unexpected yet utterly convincing effect — in her assessments of colleagues and students. She was crushing in her kindness. To Ardant's advantage, Polanski conceived of the students as real people rather than cartoonish foils for the star. (Foglia's inadequacy in this regard grows more glaring with each change of cast.)

Carter, best known as Julia Sugarbaker in the CBS Series Designing Women, was the most girlish of the five Marias I saw, mischievously aware of her power to entertain and gratified when her jokes got a laugh. In the main, though, her moods seemed affected rather than spontaneous. In Milan, Rossella Falk portrayed a star-struck, little-me Cinderella, back at the fireplace reminiscing about a night at the ball that didn't pan out. It wasn't a viable choice.
But Falk's failure pales in significance beside Dunaway's, since Dunaway's Maria is the one destined to achieve immortality of sorts on the screen. Dunaway has a movie star's ability to turn on pathos as one switches on a light, and the effect when she does so as the heartbroken sleepwalker Amina is fairly breathtaking. Otherwise she is still playing Bonnie Parker: winsome, hungry for life, cheerful, insecure, and more than a little dim. With the students Dunaway's Maria pulls punches, which renders especially false the awkward scene toward the end when the Macbeth soprano rounds on Maria and tells her off. (In my experience, only Polanski's cast makes this believable.)
Maybe by the time Dunaway takes her performance into the film studio, she, too, will have succeeded in making the role her own. Maybe she will team up with a director who can help her find the way. Word is that she was hoping for Franco Zeffirelli — an intimate of Callas's who directed the diva in historic productions of La Traviata, and Norma — but that he, citing loyalty, declined. Maybe Polanski will prove amenable. It will be a pity if the movie puts an end to the burgeoning gallery of Marias.
"You must try to characterize the person you will play, decide what sort of individual she is, what her background is, what her attitudes must be," Callas said at Juilliard. "This you will get from the music, not from history. History has its Anne Boleyn, for instance, and she is quite different from the Anna Bolena of Donizetti." Whatever clues future actresses may glean from Callas's life and recordings, the text they must master is McNally's.