Ask anyone who knows about such things and they will tell you that Maria Callas, although undoubtedly possessing an amazing talent, wasn’t the greatest soprano in the world. Her voice was, particularly after her dramatic weight loss, not as powerful as Joan Sutherland’s and her tone not as interesting as Renée Fleming’s but speak to anyone who was lucky enough to see her perform and they would testify that she was the most outstanding actress and truthful interpreter of the great operatic heroines and it’s from this that her reputation as the archetypal diva derives.
Her private life was no less dramatic than the roles she played. From her turbulent relationship with her domineering mother to her rivalry with Renata Tibaldi and of course her doomed romance with Aristotle Onasis her off stage existence could easily have been scored by Verdi.
In Master Class Stephanie Beacham, a diva in her own right, in opera of the soap variety, takes the role of Callas in Terence McNally’s play which takes place during the master classes Callas held in New York in the early seventies. Her demanding, bitchy, infuriating and fragile personality are on display as she tries to impart her passion and technique to these young hopefuls.
With her art so entwined with her life and so few true friends to open up to she begins to tell them the tales of her triumphs and disasters and what begins as instruction becomes far more revealing.
There are probably a hundred plays to be made about Maria Callas such is the fascination with her life and work, but Terence McNally has created an intimate portrait of a contradictory and all too human figure behind the façade and that makes this more than another piece of idol worship but an intriguing, intelligent and watchable work of theatre.