Following its successful engagement with “Good People,” Manhattan Theatre Club’s latest production, “Master Class,” took the stage at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater on July 7. Terrence McNally’s two-act play imagines one of the sessions taught by acclaimed operatic soprano Maria Callas at Juilliard in the 1970s — although this show is not based on a literal recount of those seminars.
Instead, Tony- and Emmy-winner Tyne Daly brilliantly embodies a fictional interpretation of the world-renowned songstress at the cusp of her career. She regally lectures the audience, speaking to them directly as if they’re the aspiring singers in attendance who are eagerly begging for insight into Callas’ success and indefinable essence.
Breaking the fourth wall from her first words, Daly wraps theatergoers around her finger and never lets them go — despite a tendency to insult and berate as she dares them to take major risks if they even dream of approaching her levels of fortune and fame.
The structure of the play is divided between three students who perform pieces for Callas to critique. Each actor performs stirring renditions of classic operatic works — often taking the audience out of the story for a few minutes to simply sit enthralled at the beauty of each voice — until Callas inevitably interrupts with insecurity-inspired criticism and self-aggrandizing anecdotes.
Other characters include an infatuated accompanist (Jeremy Cohen) and a handyman (Clinton Brandhagen), who respectively bolster and undercut Callas’ lofty projections of self-worth to summarize her internal struggle for validation. Director Stephen Wadsworth makes the most of simplicity onstage, with the busiest elements being the mere removal of set pieces as Callas disappears into memories of her glory days with La Scala and lover Aristotle Onassis.
“Master Class” is a riveting work that teaches not only performance, but the psychology of stardom; whether you’re previously a fan of Maria Callas or not, it’s worth attending to witness Daly at her best.