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Tyne Daly throws herself into 'Master Class'

A thunder of applause greets Tyne Daly when she first appears on stage in "Master Class." It's out of respect for Daly as much as it is for the character she is playing — opera great Maria Callas.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A thunder of applause greets Tyne Daly when she first appears on stage in "Master Class." It's out of respect for Daly as much as it is for the character she is playing — opera great Maria Callas.

"No applause," she says after a long time soaking up the love from the stage apron, clutching an imposing handbag and wearing a sober pantsuit and expensive scarf. "We're here to work."

Indeed. And that could apply to either woman.

For the next few hours, Tony Award-winning Daly puts everything she's got into portraying Callas in a new revival of Terrence McNally's play, directed by Stephen Wadsworth, which opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Daly is sometimes ragged, but always courageous.

Based loosely on the master classes Callas gave to students at the Juilliard School of Music in the 1970s, the plot centers on three young singers who come to the opera diva for advice. It's really a character study of Callas, whose voice had disintegrated by this point and who takes the audience back into her memories in two large soliloquies.

Daly plays Callas as a steely woman with a quick-to-bristle exterior who surprises herself when softer emotions bubble out. It's a portrait filled with love, respect and understanding about both the diva's loneliness and her deep craving for affection.

"Forget all about me. Poof! I'm invisible," she tells her first victim, as if the possibility of ignoring "La Divina" was possible. But she can't stop herself — interrupting, badgering, teasing out, explaining, historicizing and ridiculing.

When one of her students complains that it is hard to sing an aria the way Callas insists, the diva shoots back: "It'll tell you what's hard. What's hard is listening to you make a mockery of this work of art."

Daly, the former star of the TV show "Cagney & Lacey" and later winner of a Tony for "Gypsy," is not the first name you might consider when thinking of who might follow Zoe Caldwell, who won a Tony in 1996 for playing Callas in the original. Daly isn't Greek, is no opera singer and has made a career of playing anti-glamour roles.

But adopting a slight European accent and a dark-haired wig, Daly somehow pulls it off, augmented by thick eye makeup and tasteful gold jewelry. She strides across the stage purposefully and erect, as someone very comfortable in the spotlight. Her interaction with the audience is confident and her Callas is often rip-roaringly funny — and knowingly, too. It is a triumph of will — a Tyne Daly master class.

She is aided by a wonderful supporting cast that includes Sierra Boggess as Sharon Graham, Alexandra Silber as Sophie De Palma, Jeremy Cohen as the accompanist Manny and Garrett Sorenson as the tenor Anthony Candolino.

Silber is adorable as the first student, who, like a floppy lamb to the slaughter, bounces on stage with a great voice and high hopes. She only gets one note out before Callas questions everything. Silber is soon in tears and on her knees, symbolically striping under the withering criticism — her glasses, jewelry and sweater are soon discarded. At the other extreme, Sorenson plays the playful student Candolino with aplomb, lucky that his bluster, flirtatiousness and sincerity have left the teacher more amused than angered.

The highlight of the play is watching Boggess tangle with Daly, a student who starts by vomiting in fear simply by being in Callas' presence, but who later pushes through to deliver a powerful performance of the letter aria from Verdi's "Macbeth" with Callas circling, editing and shadowing the younger woman's performance.

You can feel Callas' respect and jealousy at this lovely young talent, and you can feel Sharon's recognition of it, too, adding to a climatic showdown. The student strikes back in petulant anger, but it is Callas who emerges the winner.

Daly handles human interactions better than her twin memory soliloquies, in which she recounts her triumphs at La Scala and interactions with her lover Aristotle Onassis and her husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini.

Daly doesn't always smoothly mimic the male voices or seem at ease with the pacing of these arguments as she is with the parry-and-thrust with her students. But she throws herself into it and her silent moments as Callas' real recorded voice pours out of the speakers conveys all she needs it to.

Daly, for all the inevitable comparisons to others who have played the role, has managed to create a fascinating portrait of Callas, one that delves into the insecurity and hunger of all artists. The premise, which at first doesn't seem like it will offer all that much insight, turns out to offer quite a bit.

McNally's portrait is of a woman still haunted by the feeling of being "fat and ugly," who sacrificed for years and battled egos and bitchiness, to emerge as a singular star. In Daly's hands she is imperious, vulnerable, defensive and aggressive — and deeply sympathetic. Her students? Nothing but slackers.

"I'm hurt," Callas says as Sharon storms off. "As strange as it may seem to some of you, I have feelings, too. Anyway. That's another story."

Daly has admirably told both stories.