It happened in Monterrey, Mexico, a long time ago. A passionate, heart-grabbing soprano voice rode the airwaves from a radio station south of the border, speeding 200 miles north, into Corpus Christi, TX, and directly into the heart of an impressionable 15-year-old kid named Terrence McNally. It was love at first sound.
Now, 57 years later, that love is alive and well and, as of July 7, manifesting itself for all to see at the Samuel J. Friedman, in Master Class, a Manhattan Theatre Club revival of his 1996 Tony-winning valentine to the opera world's La Divina.
"I didn't research a minute of this play," McNally announced with sunny pride at the play's after-party. (Where better, I ask you, to celebrate a 40-carat portrayal of Maria Callas than B.B. King Blues Club & Grill on West 42nd, right?) "It was her voice that attracted me," he continued. "Then, of course, I learned the rest of her story as she became more famous — the dramatic loss of weight, the seeds of temperament."
Not the least of her story was her operatic, if not Olympian, affair with the Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis. He called her his canary, couldn't care less about her internationally worshipped talent and eventually dumped her on the world stage for Jackie Kennedy, the bastard. Callas went into an emotional tailspin, crashing and burning in public, never recovering her golden perch having sung and loved too recklessly.
McNally's play catches her at one of her more vulnerable plateaus — giving master classes at Juilliard to aspiring young singers, teaching them not to sing as much as to feel while and what they sing, chiseling away at those healthy little egos until they are whooping wounds running for cover. Evidently, there were not charm schools near La Scala — and Callas was too art-above-all to avail herself if there was.
Imperious schoolmarm that she is, Callas drifts away from the petty performances of her pupils and into dark reveries about her life with Ari — the battering-ram comments, the indignities to her creative spirit, the abortion — then back to class.
This is not the first time his Callas obsession has gotten the best of him—and the best out of him. The Lisbon Traviata of 1989 was a tragicomedy about gay opera buffs working themselves into a tight-wound frenzy over the prospects of a "lost" Callas recording. "It didn't exist," McNally admits now. "I was going to call it The Chicago Trovatore or The Lisbon Traviata — those were the performances she gave, but there's no copy of them so I made it up. Then, after the play got noticed, I guess, somebody came forth and said, 'I actually have a tape of that performance.' You can buy it now. And that's how that happened."
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Another great thing to come out of The Lisbon Traviata was Nathan Lane. There's a scene where he is bending over the back of the couch when he hears the news that such a recording exists — and he reacts instinctively. Critic Howard Kissel called it the first time he'd ever seen an ass do a double take.
That ditzy character's name was Mandy, and a sequel called Mandy in Love is still on McNally's to-do list. Next on that list is Voigt Lessons. "I've written a piece for Deborah Voigt that we're going to do it at Glimmerglass. It's her talking about being a singer — and singing, but not opera." It differs from the show he wrote for Chita Rivera. "That was just Chita doing her greatest hits."
But we digress from La Divina. During the previous 598 performances of Master Class, there was a uninterrupted run of wonderful Callases — from the Tony-winning original (Zoe Caldwell) to a future Tony-winning Mama Rose (Patti LuPone) to, in her last roar of greatest, a startlingly vivid Dixie Carter.
For Callas' current resurrection, McNally tapped an even earlier Tony-winning Mama Rose, Tyne Daly, who thought he was kidding. "Fortunately," the playwright remembered, "she was very brave, and she said, 'I'll try it.'" And try it she did, from March 25-April 18, 2010, for a three-play McNally-goes-to-the-opera festival at the Kennedy Center (The Lisbon Traviata and a new play he is still working on for New York called Golden Age shared the bill of fare.)
Hosannas for Daly's Callas were heard as far north as NYC, prompting Lynne Meadow andBarry Grove to wave her in to begin Manhattan Theatre Club's new season at the Friedman. It's MTC's 11th McNally offering, and Daly's first time back at the Friedman since her Tony-nominated work in Rabbit Hole.
The actress tends to pooh-pooh the critical noise she made down in DC with only a few weeks of rehearsal. "I was okay in Washington," she reluctantly allowed. "They were very forgiving. I got a C+ in Washington. I've got a B+ now." Pooh-pooh to that.
"I'm still researching Callas. I will do that till the end. I also found out a great voice — a great interpreter. I could listen the recordings of her — oh, my goodness gracious! Here's a girl who not only threw her hat in the ring, she threw every article of clothing — and herself into the burning circle of fire. I love greatness. For anybody who's really, really good at what they do, I'm a talent whore."
So, eventually, was the opening-night audience, who forced her back on stage for a third bow. She usually calls it a night with her second — an odd pose that seems to come out of a 17th-century theatrical book. "It's sort of a Harlequin creation," she explained. "Because Maria says, 'Never move on your applause — it shortens it,' I take an opportunity to wait for a minute, then move. It's a little bit of a joke, but why not? It's also the exhausted-actor bow. 'I've left everything on the stage.' And I think you should always have a little left over. I'm an actor who doesn't like applause, y'know."
The most finished and formidable of her students is played by Sierra Boggess, the erstwhile Little Mermaid — here finless but with a seashell swirl of hair. She defends her character's emotionally quick trigger: "It's not like, 'Oh, this girl Sharon is angry, and she is just going to yell at Maria Callas.' It's a separate reality. She believes that she's right. She wants Callas to work with her and make her better than she is, but there's something she doesn't like about Sharon — and what can you do with that? How many instances do we all have that in our life? Literally, it's that somebody decides they don't like you. What are you going to do about it?"
Next up for Boggess? "I'm doing the 25th anniversary of Phantom of the Opera — the concert in London at Royal Albert Hall." She had the female lead in the London lift-off of the Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies. The show did and is being tinkered back to life. "Hopefully," she will be a part of the Broadway transfer. "If it comes, then I'd love to be a part of it," she admitted. "I adore Andrew."
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