"How can you have rivals when no one can do what you do?" asks Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's Master Class. This is but one of many juicy quips that have made the play a favorite of theatrical prima donnas, from original star Zoe Caldwell to Patti LuPone to Dixie Carter to Faye Dunaway. In the current revival at New Brunswick, New Jersey's George Street Playhouse, La Divina is in the safe hands of the considerably talented Maria Tucci.

Maria Tucci as 'La Divina,' Maria Callas.(Photo by Miguel Pagliere)
Maria Tucci as 'La Divina,' Maria Callas.
(Photo by Miguel Pagliere)
The Best Play Tony winner in 1996, Master Class challenges actresses of a certain age as few recent roles have, based as it is on an opera star who was without equal in terms of her stage presence, her unquenchable passion, and her fiery temperament on and off stage. Inspired by the actual master classes that Callas taught at the Juilliard School of Music in 1971, renowned opera fan McNally uses the teaching device as a platform for exploring the life and art of Callas as she addresses visitors to the class (i.e., the audience) and instructs young singers on stage. It is no slight praise of Mr. McNally knowledge of his subject or his brilliance as a playwright that uses such a slight premise to plumb great depths, resulting in a thoroughly satisfying theatrical experience.

Callas was born in 1923, in New York City, as Cecilia Sophia Anna Maria Kalogeropoulos--a name she enjoys repeating in the play, along with her admonition to "remember where you came from." Fat and ugly (her words) as a girl, but possessed of a singularly beautiful and flexible voice, Callas rose quickly to sing in the great opera houses of the world, reigning as Prima Donna Assoluta in the 1950s and divorcing her manager/husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini in 1959 to pursue a long affair with Aristotle Onassis. By 1964, La Divina was singing with only the remnants of a voice. She retired from the opera stage, taught the master classes in 1971, and performed once more on a recital tour with tenor Giuseppe DeStefano in 1973-74. She died alone of a heart attack in her Paris apartment in 1977.

Many people feel that Callas squandered her vocal and dramatic gifts: she was distracted from her career by petty quarrels and insecure romances, and she attempted roles that may have done irreversible damage to her voice because she felt that some then-neglected operas demanded to be performed for a generation of that had never heard them. She left the tremors of a tempestuous life in her wake at every turn--which is precisely what makes her such a tempting character for an actress to play.

Maria Tucci has played strong women in such classics as Antigone, The Trojan Women, The Rose Tattoo, and Collected Stories (at Manhattan Theatre Club). Her Callas is swaggering, elegant, raw, temperamental, painfully sensitive--as dramatically unpredictable as the singer herself. She is in charge from the moment she sweeps on stage, holding up her hands to admonish the audience: "No applause; we're here to work!"

Tucci as Callas is joined on stage by Gary Green as accompanist Emmanuel Weinstock (a role he also played on Broadway), Jay Duckworth as a clunky stage hand who couldn't care less about the Callas mystique, a callow tenor named Tony (Elijah Chester), Karen Kilroy as a frightened little mouse of a coloratura soprano, and Rebecca Eichenberger as an elegant dramatic soprano whose confidence is shattered by Callas. With the quibbling exception of Kilroy, who overplays the comic angle of her Sophie DePalma (but who sings like an angel), one could not ask for better support.

The production is as elegant and understated as the play's subject is flamboyant. Director Ethan Sweeney (Never The Sinner) and his designers (James Youmans, sets; Michael J. Sharpe, costumes; Michael Lincoln, lighting) have allowed seamless, cinematic movement for the frequent transitions of the play. Especially notable here is the sound design of Chris Bailey, which is undetectable--until Callas' recordings creep in and sweep over the audience as Tucci simultaneously speaks the lines of the arias being sung.

Callas warns that "There are no shortcuts in art," and the George Street Playhouse has taken that warning to heart. This production of Master Class is stylish, impressive, and deeply moving.

[Master Class runs through March 19 at the George Street Playhouse, located at 9 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, NJ. Phone 732-246-7717 for ticket information.]