A real-life master class experience
By: Christopher Purdy

If Terrence McNally had fashioned Master Class exactly on Maria Callas's work at Julliard you'd have a mighty dull play. Instead, McNally inflated Callas's gentle but authoritative teaching persona with the back-story of a career and a private life shattered by 1972. Master Class is not about opera; it's about one artist's struggle to remain relevant.

The truant officers in Lexington, Massachusetts, must have been on the golf course on a January day in 1972. I declined the opportunity to report to 10th grade that day. Instead, I got on a Greyhound bus in Boston and five hours later stood in front of the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center. Maria Callas was teaching master classes.

Callas had not sung professionally in eight years. Most of her appearances had been on the boat of, or the arm of, Aristotle Onassis. She had made a movie of Medea and recorded Verdi arias in London. The movie bombed and the recordings were not released. Onassis married somebody else.

On a bare stage at Julliard, Callas came out in a black pantsuit with a red silk blouse and large coke-bottle glasses. The applause was tremendous. She raised her hand, like Norma calming the druids: "No applause, please. We are all wonderful, but this is a class."

"Who feels like singing?," she would call out. A young baritone sang Verdi's "Rigoletto" with a gentle, but beautiful, voice. "Wonderful sound you make, but that is not Rigoletto, eh? You must be an animal. You must beg them and hate them at the same time." Then she sang the aria with the hapless fellow. A bashful tenor was admonished, “Give me some guts! C'mon. Aren't you Neapolitan?" A frightened soprano was told "Open your throat!" The audience that came to wallow in diva drama must have been disappointed. Callas was teaching, not emoting. During a Q&A she was asked how much of her singing personality she gave over to teaching. "Singing? My singing is well documented on recordings. It's all there if people care to listen."


Two years later Callas returned to singing.

On February 27, 1974, I got to Symphony Hall early. I told the lady next to me I had been sick to my stomach from nerves all week. She had too! And people around us were nodding in agreement! Callas was nervous and her audience was petrified in anticipation.

She began to speak to the audience, apologizing for being nervous: "I hope everything will go well." She said, "Can you hear me?"

"NO!," people yelled back; but applause and shouts of encouragement went out again and again. She had a large, radiant smile that lit up her eyes. "You are a marvelous audience. Thank you."

She began with "Suicidio" from La Gioconda, the opera of her first break in 1947. After the first four notes there was a buzz in the Hall. All of the color was there. The timbre was there. What had made Callas was still Callas. The aria had been transposed down but in this piece it didn't matter. She growled, she cried, she sang and the excitement was incredible.

It became apparent that Callas had retained low notes, and even some above the staff. But from, I'd say, the G above middle C to the D above the fifth, there was no voice at all. The voice had separated and the middle was gone. Exactly where most of the repertoire lies. Never mind. The applause lasted longer than the concert. She was Callas. She may have forgotten, but the public did not.

Three years later she died.

Click here to return to show page.