Anthony Tommasini, critic for the New York Times, has some very interesting points to make about the real Maria Callas, and Terrence McNally’s fictional one, currently to be see on Broadway interpreted by Tyne Daly. Here is a selection of his article (the link to the original is below):
The first student, called Sophie, an eager young soprano (the endearing Alexandra Silber) takes the stage to perform the climactic scene and aria from Bellini’s “Sonnambula,” sung by the jilted, emotionally fragile country girl Amina. Sophie gets no further than the first note, a sustained midrange C on the word “Oh,” before Ms. Daly’s Callas abruptly orders her to “stop right there.”
As delivered by Ms. Daly in this production from the Manhattan Theater Club, Callas’s belittling line gets a big laugh. “I’m sorry to do this to you,” she continues, “but what’s the point of going on with it if it’s all wrong, eh?” As Callas soon explains: “It’s not a note we’re after here, it’s a stab of pain. The pain of loss.”
But how exactly does a singer convey such loss through the voice? Is it just a matter of feeling it? There must be something more specific a teacher can impart. The Callas Mr. McNally presents is not much help to the students who sing for her.
To judge from the critic John Ardoin’s excellent 1987 book, “Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes” (Amadeus Press), and especially the classic three-disc EMI recording “Maria Callas at Juilliard,” which includes long extracts from her coaching of 10 student singers, Callas was not much like the imperious, self-absorbed prima donna of Mr. McNally’s play. At Juilliard she was frank and demanding but unfailingly patient and encouraging. Above all, she was impressively precise in her technical and interpretive critiques.
One student (the soprano Pamela Hebert) is captured singing Bellini’s aria “Casta diva” from “Norma.” If Callas had a signature role, it was that of Bellini’s druid priestess. Yet in Ardoin’s transcripts of her comments, when Callas draws on her long experience and approach to the role, she almost always credits her mentors, especially the Italian conductor Tullio Serafin, for providing crucial insights. On the recording she gives Ms. Hebert detailed comments, including astute explanations of ornamentation in the Bellini style. In the long-spun opening phrase on the words “Casta diva,” invoking a “chaste goddess,” Callas insists that the ornamental turn be sung evenly, on “one tone,” with all the notes clearly articulated.
Though on the recording Ms. Hebert’s sound is luscious, her initial singing lacks smoothness in the embellishments: some notes stick out more than others. Her second time through is more elegant. But in the next phrase, to Callas’s demanding ears, Ms. Hebert again cheats a bit on some notes.
“I will not let that go by,” Callas says, not sternly but insisting on musical and vocal integrity. She then helps Ms. Hebert to sing without “shifting gears” vocally…
… Dramatic license in the depiction of historical figures is an honored tradition in the arts, from Shakespeare’s history plays to the film director David Fincher’s portrait of the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.” An official disclaimer in the published edition of “Master Class” indicates that Mr. McNally’s play is a “work of fiction.”
The play is ultimately about Callas as a woman and as an artist at a crisis point in her art and life. Each of the two acts has a flashback scene in which the classroom disappears, and Callas, alone onstage, becomes caught up in bittersweet memories of past artistic glories and painful recollections of her relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who had abandoned her to marry Jacqueline Kennedy. For some these flashbacks are the emotional high points of the play; for others they are mawkish melodrama. Ms. Daly’s ferocious intensity tipped me into the high points group…
… Still, it bothers me that many theatergoers will come away from “Master Class” with little idea of how artistically substantive Callas’s actual classes were…
… A play that hewed closely to Callas’s detailed teaching during the Juilliard classes might not be great theater. But there is great drama in listening to Callas at Juilliard, so vulnerable and giving as she works with a new generation of singers, pushing aside for a while any thoughts about her own future. She died just five years later.
read all via NYTimes.com
Photo: Tyne Daly in Callas wig and make-up