“When you’re fat and ugly, you had better have a couple of high F’s you can interpolate into your life.” So says Maria Callas, the American-born Greek soprano who became the definitive diva of 20th-century opera, in Terrence McNally’s celebrated 1995 play Master Class, now being given a strong production at the Paper Mill Playhouse, with a very fine Barbara Walsh in the leading role.
The two-act play, loosely based on a series of 12 master classes that Callas gave at the Juilliard School in 1971 that McNally observed, is essentially a one-woman monologue with short cameos from a trio of would-be opera singers, and incidental music by Bellini, Puccini, and Verdi that is performed by pianist Andrew Gerle. In between coaching and terrorizing the students, Callas sinks into interior monologues in which she recalls her first marriage to an older man, her eventually doomed love affair with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, and her final performance at La Scala.
Meanwhile, her goal in the coaching session is supposedly to make the students sing not only properly, but also with real feeling and honesty. The extremely demanding diva rattles off so many hard-earned, usually sarcastic pearls of wisdom that vocal students attending the show would be well advised to bring a pencil and pad. “Tears will get you nowhere,” she says. “Not in the theatre, not in real life. Certainly not with me. No one cares how many nights I cried myself to sleep.”
Wearing a gold chain necklace and thick round glasses, Walsh brings the same uninhibited ferocity to Callas that she delivered as Joanne in the recent Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. She is absolutely driven, disciplined, and demanding, leaving her students to act as the poor prey to a fiery fox. Walsh also has the humor of McNally’s text in the palm of her hand — making every sarcastic offshoot and bit of opera gossip soar — while highlighting the character’s hidden pain and insecurities with the utmost clarity and sensitivity during the lengthy monologues. For better or worse, however, Walsh makes absolutely no attempt to mimic Callas’ Greek accent and instead speaks in proper English.
Lauren Worsham, who was sensational as the virginal sexpot Cunegonde in the New York City Opera’s 2008 revival of Candide, plays soprano Sophie De Palma, who dares to perform the sleepwalking aria from La Sonnambula, a piece that Callas herself made famous. To display her nervousness, Worsham rubs her hands together compulsively, breathes heavily, squeezes her skirt and eventually goes so far as to imitate Callas’ facial gestures.
Mike McGowan provides both his distinctive presence and booming voice to tenor Anthony Candolino, the only singer with the confidence to match that of Callas. His performance of “Recondita Armonia” from Tosca, which brings Callas to tears, merits a strong audience ovation. Finally, Broadway star Sarah Uriarte Berry plays soprano Sharon Graham (the role originated on Broadway by Audra McDonald) who reacts to Callas’ criticisms by spitting back every nasty thing you have ever heard about the diva. Berry makes quite a transformation from a seemingly hesitant student into a power-crazed Lady Macbeth in her performance of the letter-reading aria from Macbeth.
As with all non-musicals performed at Paper Mill Playhouse, it is difficult to reconcile the play’s intimacy with the cavernous space. For Callas’ monologues, Walsh descends to a downstage platform that extends into the audience. And while Callas claims in the first scene that she refuses to use microphones, they are in fact used. But try and play make believe!