John Brownlee was a celebrated baritone known not only for his superb voice, but also his ability as an actor. As the daughter of this Metropolitan Opera star, his daughter Delphine often got to see dress rehearsals, and to assess the productions before the general public.
“I was a young theater performer myself,” she recalls, “ I used to tell my dad how much I loathed the lack of acting ability of the Met singers. One day, he smiled and said ‘Come with me.’ It was October, 1956, and we were on our way to see the final dress rehearsal of Norma, which was opening the seventy-second season of the Met. The moment she walked on stage, I knew. And when she started to sing, she just blew me away. This was my introduction to Maria Callas.”
A real introduction soon followed, with Brownlee taking his still awe-struck daughter backstage to meet “La Divina,” I asked Del what she was like; temperamental, haughty? “Not at all,” my friend replied, “she was sweet, and she was beautiful.”
So much has already been written praising Tyne Daly in the current Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Master Class, there’s little I can add that would be illuminating. No fool I, I asked Del to accompany me when I went to cover the show. While I realize that the Callas here is filtered not only through the accomplished actress playing the role, but also by playwright Terrence McNally, I wanted to know if the essence of the acclaimed soprano was indeed on the stage.
For some reason, I remembered the play I saw in 1995 as being different from the one I saw yesterday. I didn’t recall that the first act dragged so much. Callas did indeed teach a series of master classes at Julliard in the 1970’s, after her career as a singer had ended. She may have interrupted her students as she does here; but after the first few times, the practice becomes annoying and repetitious.
I was surprised that there was no actual monologue describing the anguish Callas felt when her lover, Aristotle Onassis, threw her over for the far more glamorous and famous Jacqueline Kennedy. One of the problems in presenting this play now is that most fledgling theater goers don’t know the story. A younger friend asked me if, following the onstage proposal Callas makes to Onassis, they got married. The “Medea” reference went right over her head. Callas always claimed that Onassis spent his wedding night with her. Now, that would have been an interesting speech.
Despite the consummate skill of Daly, having her play-act Onassis just doesn’t work. The singing of the real Callas is piped in. Why not have her converse with a taped Onassis voice? It’s not immediate reality after all, but a moment from her own memory.
The major problem with the play is the incredibly weak and downbeat ending. After Daly’s final exit, the audience sat in silence; not because everyone was stunned by the production, but because we were all waiting for Daly to come back on stage and finish the show. The confusion in the house was palpable. After such a bravura presentation, that was it? Very ineffective and unsatisfying.
I have a vivid recollection of the ultra-chic black pantsuit Zoe Caldwell wore in her Tony Award-winning performance. Here, the expensive couture suit and equally costly patterned scarf and handbag Daly sports help to add to the illusion as much as the dark wig and heavy makeup. Through all her cop show episodes and unglamorous blue collar roles, I’d forgotten what a stunning Irish beauty Tyne Daly really is. She is strikingly attractive here, and graceful, every inch a star.
I know it’s Tyne Daly I’ll be remembering from this production, and every other future Maria Callas will be compared to her. If you witnessed her Tony award winning portrayal of Mama Rose in the 1989 revival of Gypsy, you already know the power and the pipes that this actress brings to the stage. And here, as a heartbreaking, infuriating, and totally captivating Maria Callas, Daly grabs the audience by our hearts and minds, and never lets go. We are hers completely, and we’d never leave her.
Back to my original question, I asked Del “Is she there? Is the essence of Maria Callas on that stage?”
My misty-eyed friend replied, “Oh yes.”
Photos by Joan Marcus
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Through September 4, 2011
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.