Terrence McNally Time-Travels to Eavesdrop Backstage at the Creation of an Opera in Golden Age

By Harry Haun
02 Dec 2012

Will Rogers (seated, left), Eddie Kaye Thomas, Bebe Neuwirth and Lorenzo Pisoni in Golden Age.
Photo by Joan Marcus

McNally's imagination takes flight again with the arrival backstage of another prominent prima donna of the day, Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth), creating the inevitable diva-catfight and causing Grisi to barricade herself in her dressing room.

"We don't know Malibran didn't come backstage if she was in Paris that night. That's what the playwright brings from his imagination. I'm sure she wondered why she wasn't asked to do the part since he professed to adore her, so I imagined her there."

More than that — because Bellini professed to write his long-flowing melodic lines for Malibran — McNally has him starting to revise I Puritani for her on the spot when Grisi feels too ill to continue. That threat somehow brings Grisi around, and she and the show go on. In point of fact, he did do an alternate version for Malibran to sing in Naples, but it wasn't performed till 1986. (Some have called this "Grisi's Revenge.")

At one point, the divas make nice, and Grisi rather magnanimously permits Malibran to go on stage to snatch a few stanzas for herself. Interestingly, when Grisi sings, she sounds like vintage Joan Sutherland; when Malibran breaks into song, it's primal Callas. McNally has no comment to make about this "illusion" (having already said quite enough, as Callas, in Master Class: "I won't hear anything against any of my colleagues. . . . She did her best.")