Here is some unfair competition… "Master Class," a play by Terrence McNally inspired by the series of public master classes that soprano Maria Callas held at the Juilliard School decades ago, imagines a sequence of master class sessions at which Callas bullies three vocal students, displays her trademark temperament, and narrates fantasy sequences recalling some of her tense moments as a performer. The unfair competition comes in the casting of the current Broadway revival, in which one of the three actors playing the vocal students is a ringer!!! That is, one is a real opera singer. Garrett Sorenson, a tenor whose bio in the program gives the game away. He's sung at the Metropolitan Opera and a slew of other major houses: Chicago Lyric, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Houston Grand Opera, and has appeared with the NY Philharmonic and several other major US orchestras. So when he sings on stage, he blows us all away and puts everybody else in the shade. And he's definitely worth hearing.
McNally wrote the role so that the lead can be taken by somebody who is not an opera singer in real life. And so far, that's how it's been cast. I attended the first production so long ago with Zoe Caldwell impersonating Callas. Caldwell was incredible, one of those indelible performances. In the current revival, Tyne Daley does the honors. Daley's assumption of the Callas persona is not quite as overwhelming as was Caldwell's, but I thought she did a convincing job last night. There are a few moments of singing, and she handled those well, as one would expect from her accomplishments in musical theater.
The other two actors in the role of vocal students, Sierra Boggess and Alexandra Silber, were not quite in the same class. They've both done a fair amount of musical theater and sounded pretty good, but there is such a world of difference between a professional operatic voice and a good musical theater voice, that it is almost unfair to put somebody without that operatic background up on the stage to work through an aria by Bellini or Verdi. On the other hand, of course, McNally is trying to create a simulated master class in which these singers are just students, so having less than fully-developed operatic voices makes sense. And the casting of Sorenson is appropriate, too, because the part is written for him to be so good that Callas has little she can say after he sings other than to wish him well on his career.
What struck me last night was that, compared to my memories of the first production, there seemed to be more "business" on stage, more tartness from Callas, and perhaps less opportunity for the other members of the cast to make their marks. I thought that Jeremy Cohen, who plays the piano accompanist, was terrifically accomplished, and Clinton Brandhagen, who plays the stagehand, had the stagehand attitude 100%. I could only wonder, however, how much the audience was getting out of this. I can't believe a nearly-full Broadway house (and it was nearly full — pretty decent for a sweltering Tuesday night in July) was packed with opera-lovers, so I have to believe that a fair amount of the verbal by-play might have seemed a bit impenetrable, but the audience hung in there and seemed to be enjoying itself, judging by the laughter and occasional applause.
I thought it was worth seeing again, and will inspire me to dig out my copy of the multi-CD set released by EMI a while back with the actual audio recordings taken from Callas's Juilliard master classes. Time to give them another listen…