Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Master Class

Terrence McNally
Vaudeville Theatre

Maria Callas was the greatest operatic soprano of her age and acquired legendary status during a short and ultimately unhappy life. As such, she is an obvious choice for this partly biographical drama written in 1994/95.

This production comes straight over from a two-month run at the similarly-sized Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway for a strictly limited engagement until the end of April.

The Greek American singer graced the greatest stages of the world for years but eventually lost much of her vocal power and by the time that we meet her had been reduced to teaching master classes for young singers who wanted to emulate her greatness.

Cagney and Lacey star Tyne Daly bravely throws herself into the role of a woman with a far from conventional private life who acknowledges herself to be both fat and ugly but thanks to the beauty of her voice achieved fame, fortune and a measure of happiness.

Much of the first half features the diva giving her charges a hard time, her criticism constantly peppered with cutting remarks that drew appreciative sniggers from audience members but draw tears from the pupils.

It takes some time for her first victim, Sophie de Palma, an inappropriately dressed girl with the potential to sing well, to appear while another flees.

Strangely, while Sophie is savaged by the more experienced lady, it is only for her physical performance and failure to get into character as Amina in Bellini's La Sonnambula. Hardly ever do we hear any singing coaching from a lady who surely, though she might have acted reasonably well, was employed to train a voice towards perfection.

The play only really takes off when Callas relives some personal highs and lows which include an early marriage that seemingly brought no happiness and then a fiery highly sexualised relationship with Aristotle Onassis, himself the subject of a recent biographical play.

This relationship achieves operatic peaks of love, hatred and tragic pathos as our heroine becomes pregnant and is then obliged by the richest man in the world to terminate, an emotional trauma that possibly contributed to her death aged only 53 (a dozen years younger than Miss Daly today).

These flashback scenes also feature recordings of the diva in action, which will delight opera buffs who must presumably form a significant part of the audience for any performance.

They will probably fare rather better than lovers of the American TV star who is heavily enough made up to be unrecognisable as herself, though she does catch the look of Callas. What they do not get is the action star of the 1980s feminist cop drama.

After the interval, the operatic element is revved up with the arrival of two heavenly singers who wish to learn how to take their trade to new peaks.

Garrett Sorenson, who was in the original Broadway cast, has the build of Luciano Pavarotti and aspires to his voice. He has been a regular at the Met and there must be every chance that he will hit the heights.

Similarly, Irish mezzo soprano Naomi O'Connell is far beyond a star in the making and when she starts singing as Verdi's Lady Macbeth, the house goes silent in admiration.

While Terrence McNally injects some lightweight humour into the evening, the real attraction is the opportunity to learn a little (and it really isn't very much) about the life and times of Maria Callas and hear some singers showing off their golden tonsils.

Whether Stephen Wadsworth's Broadway transfer can succeed will depend on the drawing power of the star and also the public's appreciation of Maria Callas.

She died in the mid-1970s and there has to be a danger that the only people who really know and appreciate her work are opera buffs plus those in their 60s and older who recognise names such as Scotto, Tebaldi or even Sutherland.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher