Jeremy Cohen, Tyne Daly, and Alexandra Silber
in Master Class
(© Joan Marcus)
Jeremy Cohen, Tyne Daly, and Alexandra Silber
in Master Class
(© Joan Marcus)
After teasing us with two gay opera lovers' obsession about Maria Callas in The Lisbon Traviata and showing us a soprano from 1835 who reminds us of the renowned bel canto prima donna in Golden Age, the Kennedy Center finally introduces us to Callas herself in Stephen Wadsworth's fully absorbing production of Terrence McNally's Master Class, with Tyne Daly giving a risky yet ultimately effective performance as "La Divina." (The three plays are now being performed in repertory as part of the Center's Terrence McNally's Nights at the Opera series.)

The Tony Award-winning play is one of McNally's most vibrant works, showcasing one of the last century's most vivid and controversial performers. Callas was more than a gifted singer who pumped significant dimension into the characters she portrayed; she was also a larger-than-life, truly glamorous figure who was almost as famous for her romantic exploits -- most notably her affair with Aristotle Onassis -- as for her performances onstage.

The play gives us moments from classes the singer conducted at the Julliard School late in her career, along with inner monologues crafted by McNally's imagination. In doing so, Daly shows us a kinder, gentler Callas than some of her stage predecessors in the role (notably Zoe Caldwell and Patti LuPone, both of whom played the part on Broadway). The explosive edge we expect is muted, the imperious bearing softened. And truth be told, it can be a bit awkward to see people cowering in the presence of someone who seems a bit cranky, but not outrageously formidable. But the trade-off is a level of intimacy that is achieved between Callas and her students as Daly is allowed to layer in enlightening vulnerability.

Still, Daly bites off Callas' often catty dialogue with perfect self-possession. "It's not a note we have to hear," she lectures one student. "It's a stab of pain." Daly is even grander of expression and radiates more energy when Callas is alone onstage, lost in her private reveries. The segues from class activities to her vivid memories of grand triumph and aching loss are smooth, aided by rapid shifts in Thomas Lynch's simple but evocative set design. In act two, a throwaway line all but hands us the key to Callas. Reading a note accompanying a bouquet of flowers, she quickly mutters, "It's always, 'we love you,' never 'I love you.'"

Daly is backed by an able supporting cast, most notably Alexandra Silber, Laquita Mitchell, and Ta'u Pupu'a, all of whom possess beautiful voices, as the young opera singers who subject themselves to Callas' withering critiques. Jeremy Cohen does well as an accompanist whose apparent fondness for the great artist apparently serves as a signal the audience is supposed to heed. And Clinton Brandhagen is appropriately surly and bemused as the stagehand -- a man who sees Callas not as a great star but as just another annoyance in a day he seems to view as filled with them.