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Master Class with Maria Callas in London's West End

06 January 2012 / 18:01:36  GRReporter
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No, this is not the editor’s error. The play, which had won much applause from the audience, but sharp comments from Broadway critics will be performed at the "Vaudeville" theatre in London from 21 January. In 1995 the play by Terrence McNally won a Tony award and Stephen Wadsworth’s staging with Tyne Daly in the main role was an absolute bestseller on Broadway last season.

The story of "Master Class" takes us back to the pring of 1972 when Maria Callas leads a series of master classes at the famous Juilliard School of Music in New York. At the beginning of the play the audience, played by the students of the opera diva who watch her act up, because there is no stool provided for her feet and pillow to support her back, witness her revelation that a star must always keep her style.

Enter Sophie - an ambitious young singer who performs the opera's climactic scene in "La Sonnambula" by Bellini. She starts singing the aria of an emotional, hurt peasant girl Amina, when Callas roughly interrupts her in order to explain that the notes are not important for singing, but the feelings. Gradually, in front of the audience grows a despotic, arrogant and selfish Maria Callas.

The authors of the play, however, stress that the play is art and not a documentary work, with a focus on a particular period of the opera diva’s life when her performing career was already in decline, and her personal life was in crisis. In both acts the classroom suddenly disappears, and in her thoughts the singer returns to the days of glory and her turbulent relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who abandons her to marry Jacqueline Kennedy. For some critics these reminiscences are the emotional peak of the play but for others it is too melodramatic.

Another group of critics are very sensitive to the attempt of the playwright to convey to viewers the dissatisfaction of Maria Callas in her role of teacher and mentor of young opera talents who learn arias, emblematic of her own career. In this part critics acknowledge the skill with which McNally and Daly recreate this aspect of the Callas' nature, but stress that it has nothing to do with the historical truth.

And indeed they are right. 48-year-old Maria Callas with pianist Eugene Kohn conducted 23 two-hour sessions and worked with 25 rising opera stars, approved by Callas herself, after having listened to over 300 candidates. The sessions took place in perhaps the best music school in the world - New York's Juilliard School and are very well documented. EMI music company released three CDs entitled "Maria Callas at Juilliard," which followed the methodical, patient and very precise work of Callas with ten of her students. And in 1987 the magnificent book "Callas at Juilliard: Master Classes" by John Ardoin, published by Amadeus Press, came out.

In Stephen Wadsworth’s play Maria Callas is a vulnerable woman who gives herself to her students in order to forget the fears of her own future. At one point in the play on stage appears the presumptuous tenor Tony, who must sing the aria from Tosca “Recondita armonia” by Puccini. Callas soon discovers that the young man has no idea who his character really is, and sends him off the stage, saying, "Go home and do not waste my time." But Tony manages to charm his teacher and it turns out that he has a magnificent voice. In fact, it was hard for Callas to be charmed by others, as John Ardoin says.

For many of her contemporaries Maria Callas was a boring and conventional opera star. This is why Terrence McNally acknowledges that her image in the play is a collection of features from other stars as well, such as Renata Scotto and Leontyne Price. Her ego is Olympian and even frightening. The play might not be associated with the historical personality, but it is fun and it fills the theatre. And this is actually the purpose of theatre - to attract spectators. And why not even criticism?

Tags: Stephen Wadsworth Tyne Daly Terrence McNally Maria Callas London theatre play West End
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