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Masterclass: by Terrence McNally, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 9.2.2011 (SRT)

Starring Stephanie Beecham as Maria Callas

More than thirty years after her death, the person of Maria Callas continues to fascinate us. Her recordings continue to show up regularly in our pages, be they reissued, remastered or rediscovered, and it’s frequently said that even today she is still the biggest selling classical recording artist. Her life story is every bit as compelling and dramatic as that of the heroines she depicted: her lightning rise to fame, her triumphs in the major houses of Europe, her equally rapid vocal decline and her affair with Aristotle Onassis which ended in his abandoning her for marriage with Jackie Kennedy. Such a life is perfect material for the stage and Terrence McNally’s 1995 play is probably the most famous treatment of it.

The device he uses is one of the Master Classes that Callas gave at the Juilliard School, New York in 1972. Callas herself dominates the stage, dispensing advice to three defenceless students, accompanied the whole time by the Manny, the repetiteur and affable Everyman. The situation is used to showcase Callas’ art but there are powerful digressions too as she reflects on her past.

Some aspects work very well. Her advice to a pupil on how to interpret Amina in Bellini’s Sonnambula is riveting: we see her identify with the role as a dramatic character, unpacking every phrase and encouraging the singer to get beyond the notes and into the characterisation. This was one of Callas’ lasting achievements and it is correct to make it the cornerstone of her teaching focus. She does the same with Cavaradossi and Lady Macbeth, but with those the role of the pupil is more developed whereas with Amina Callas’ identification with the role is at its most complete.

When the whole play is about one person it needs a great interpreter. When approached for the role Stephanie Beecham says she jumped at the chance to play Callas. Apparently Zeffirelli himself remarked on the similarity between the two. It is the physicality of her interpretation that is most striking: she captures Callas’ personality with the curve of her body, the self-important swagger and a well practised accent so that I never questioned any aspect of her assumption. She also has the only-just-restrained temperament, the stage presence and the fire behind the eyes.

There are major problems with McNally’s dramatic device, however. How, after all, do you do a play about music without it turning into a musical? At times the problem is solved, such as during the Sonnambula scene where Callas talks through the part to the piano accompaniment, but there is too much singing in the second half and little character development. Most seriously barely any attempt is made to mine the dramatic riches of the most tragic parts of Callas’ life, namely her vocal decline and her abandonment by Onassis. A significant dramatic crossroads is reached when one of her students denounces her working methods and storms out in anger, but just as the play threatens to become interesting it ends with a banal monologue about the nature of sacrifice for art.

Despite the problems, however, there is plenty to enjoy and if you love Callas’ work or have some knowledge about the bel canto revival then there is a lot to like. For me the finest moment of the evening came in the Act 1 monologue as the Sonnambula masterclass fades away and Callas remembers her performance of the role in Visconti’s La Scala production: at this point the music and the drama unite hand in hand and both text and actor combine to give the audience a spellbinding insight into how the Diva may have got inside a role. If nothing else then the play’s achievement was to reawaken my curiosity about Callas and has made me go back to listen to her recordings again. Stephanie Beecham herself got a rapturous – and well deserved – ovation at the end, but I couldn’t help but wonder: who were we applauding: Beecham or Callas?

Masterclass runs at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh until Saturday 12 February 2011. It then continues its nationwide tour.

Simon Thompson

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