Maria Callas looms large in Terrence McNally's work. One of the soprano's famed performances as Violetta Val_ry was the focus of The Lisbon Traviata, and the diva returned to McNally's theatrical world in Master Class, which won the Tony Award for best play in 1996. But even a Callas acolyte like McNally says that a great singer alone cannot single-handedly make a performance succeed. The right director, a capable conductor, and a strong score are essential — as is a lucid libretto, which McNally learned firsthand writing the text for Jake Heggie's 2000 opera, Dead Man Walking. So what does McNally think is required to make opera theatrical? Music! Vision! Collaboration!
Matt Dobkin: You've spoken about the Rudolf Bing era of the 1950s and '60s, during which he hired major theater directors, as a kind of theatrical golden age for the Met. Can we recapture that today?
Terrence McNally: Bing began his tenure with a new production of Don Carlo and brought in Margaret Webster, who was a famous Shakespearean director. Then he brought in Alfred Lunt to do CosÐ fan tutte, which was virtually a new Mozart piece for the audience the way La clemenza di Tito and Idomeneo were for my generation. Then he had Joseph Mankiewicz do Bohme, which shocked people because MimÐ and Rodolfo did not go to Caf_ Momus at the end of Act I, they ran back in and presumably jumped into bed! Jos_ Quintero was the reigning O'Neill director at the time, and he did Cavalleria and Pagliacci. It wasn't always the easiest combination — directors who were used to working with great actors now working with opera singers. But the productions were always very, very exciting. And when a Tyrone Guthrie directed a RisêŠ Stevens in Carmen it was the best theater in town. Now there is a kind of return to this with great theater directors like Jack O'Brien and Bartlett Sher coming in. To have artists of this caliber directing Puccini and Rossini is a genuine event.
MD: Is it hard to find theater directors who can also do opera?
TM: I think opera is theater, and someone who is going to be a good play director is going to be a good opera director — unless they are totally insensitive to the music. When Joe Mantello did the premiere of Dead Man Walking, I found him incredibly musical. Susan Graham and Frederica von Stade were saying how wonderful it was, working with a director who really appreciates what they can bring to the parts dramatically.
MD: Today there's a view that many directors impose too much of a vision onto a production.
TM: I think a really intelligent director who cares about dramatic situation and truth is not going to be attracted to a glitzy, cynical "concept production" that has nothing underlying it but the director's ego. More importantly, I think the kind of opera production that has reached its last gasp in this country is the Overproduced Spectacular. And I'm glad that's happened, because I think what has gotten lost over the years are the very people the opera is about — Violetta got lost in her own house! The audience should not be applauding set changes. Not every production has to cost $100 million.
MD: But can singers alone shoulder the job of making opera theatrical?
TM: No. I can think of the days when it seemed like you could see four Toscas in a week and all of them were world-class, with internationally famous people. When I first came to New York, Monday it was Callas, Wednesday it was Tebaldi, Thursday was Milanov, Friday was de los Angeles. Those days are over. So let's do the best production of Tosca we can, and that has to begin with the director and conductor. I don't care how good you are — even Maria Callas could not make a great performance of Tosca by herself. She might sing a good Tosca, but she wasn't conducting it, staging it. It's such a collaboration.
MD: Callas, of course, is seen as the ultimate singing actress. Is it possible for a singer today to accomplish what she did?
TM: Callas was basically led to her position by conductor Tullio Serafin, who was arguably the last real link with the generations before hers. She didn't do it by herself. You've got to have the right conductor in the pit and the right production values on the stage. When a Karita Mattila comes along, aren't we all lucky? But I think it is up to the conductor and stage director to create the right atmosphere for these people to blossom. Mattila reminds me of [late soprano Leonie] Rysanek — there's an abandon in her singing and a rapture that you don't learn in any conservatory. A lot of what Callas had I don't think you can teach to anybody else. But the definitive opera experience is when Traviata deeply moves people, and everybody is a little shaken when she dies at the end. And that's because Verdi really comes through.
MD: And what does it take for Verdi to come through like that?
TM: A director and conductor who respect the score above all else. That there is no gimmick — it's not Traviata set on a spaceship. I think directors have to put the opera first, the way really great Shakespearean directors go back to, "What is this play about?" Not, "How can we gloss it over and fool people?"
You know, I got into opera with a nun dragging in a phonograph — 78 [RPM] records, that's how old I am — and playing Madama Butterfly with Licia Albanese and James Melton. I must have been in the 4th or 5th grade, and I loved it! Our classroom became a theater because of Puccini. No sets, no costumes, just the music.
MD: And now you're writing your own operas. What are the challenges of writing a libretto as opposed to a straight play?
TM: I think the libretto is the problem with so many contemporary operas. So many are very sloppily put together, dramaturgically. But if an audience is clear with what is happening, they can follow the story emotionally. If the libretto is not solid dramatically, it is really hard for a composer to lift it. That's the challenge. When there's music, people are very quick to say, "I didn't come out humming the tunes." Well, I don't know if the first-night audience for Fidelio or Parsifal or any of the great operas came out humming the tunes. Music is a lot of information to take in. You're seeing a story about people you've never met before, and they're singing, which is not the way we communicate. It's so much to ask of an audience. The librettist owes them a clear story so that they can even begin to let the music in.
MD: It does seem like people expect great music and singing when they enter the opera house, but they don't necessarily expect great drama.
TM: Every time the curtain goes up, it's a chance for the Met to find 4,000 new audience members. If Renata Tebaldi and Callas come along again, then welcome them, but in the meantime, let's do the story of Cio-Cio-San, with this incredible music by Puccini, and then you cannot go wrong. I don't think it is easy, but to give up would be so terrible!
I wrote for Callas in Master Class, at the very end, "The sun will not fall down from the sky if there are no more Traviatas. The world can and will go on without us." But then she says, "I have to believe that what we do (as artists) matters. If I didn't believe that ..." and she can't complete the sentence. I think that's the kind of commitment the arts demands of people who devote their life to it. You have to behave as if the world will come to an end. Opera has to matter again. It is life and death.