It’s 1971. We’re on a stage at the Juilliard School of Music, where Maria Callas will teach a master class on “The Lyric Tradition” to aspiring young singers. Callas is past her prime in art and in love. Perfectionists detect flaws in her voice, and Aristotle Onassis, for whom she might have quit singing, dumped her for Jackie Kennedy.
So she’ll teach vocalists a few things about the craft before an audience of students. Sure. No prob. Might keep her mind off her life’s avalanches. And she begins sea-breezy and distant as a star. But the music awakens memories. The scores of Verdi, Puccini, and Bellini prompt her to relive hyper-joys and Medea-deep agonies.
A woman asked Anton Chekhov if he could make her a great artist. “Yes,” he replied. “But first I would have to break your heart.” The personal stories Callas tells, in asides that become the main narrative, recall Chekhov’s response.
Along with revealing Callas’ agony (“I was never young”), the best parts of Terrence McNally’s script cultivate artistic appreciation: a performer must have a look (few of us apparently do); make an entrance; know every detail in detail; “never miss an opportunity to dramatize.” Most of her teaching moments bring out something the young singers could not have imagined.
Her repeated refrain, “it’s all in the music,” becomes the key that unlocks her heart.
The weaker parts of McNally’s script are slow stretches and, as if Callas’ epic life weren’t enough, forced melodrama. The piece moves forward in sections, like a string of beads with separations between each.
Ion Theatre’s opening had a “give it a week” quality. The pacing lagged in spots, and spontaneity felt forced, in part because the production uses real — and really good — vocalists (Laura Bueno, Alex Cammarata, Priti Gandhi) with varying degrees of acting experience.
Sandy Campbell was ready, though. All in black, as if in mourning, her long black hair with Callas’ signature, back-from-the-forehead sweep, Campbell speaks and moves with grace, interspersed with volatility. This isn’t Tyne Daly’s monster Callas, who allegedly could bite the heads off nails, and swallow them with a smile. Or Faye Dunnaway’s florid, diva-to-the-nth. Campbell’s Callas wears a mask of confidence. This is CALLAS, after all: the maestro of master classes. But inside’s a fragile vulnerability. Much of what she talks about is why she needs the mask.
Campbell wavers between assertion and confession. She tries to repress the latter but in the end cannot. Best of show: the play has two, aria-like soliloquies; Campbell scores with each.
The small Ion space works well for such an intimate piece. The polished wood set, black piano (played well by Daniel James Greenbush), and a soundscape of Callas’ greatest triumphs — all situate us in the audience at the Juilliard School in 1971. We are ready to take notes about the art but become caught up in the life of Maria Callas.