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August 21st, 2011

The Master Class

I shouldn't even be using my "La Loge" for this, since it isn't really going to be a review.  It can't be.  I'm too emotionally invested in the play to review it with anything like objectivity.  You see, it's about a teacher who feels passionately about what she's teaching, trying to convey that passion--not to mention the necessity for knowing something about the history and the context as well as the basic building-blocks of technique and craft--to students who don't know (or care) as much background as she thinks they should.  She also believes that everybody who wants to be an artist should suffer for their art as much as she did when she was young,  Not the men, so much:  they don't really need to learn the hard lessons about endurance and growing a thick skin and giving up huge, bleeding chunks of themselves to pursue their careers.  But the women, certainly.  She had to.  So will they.  It's best they be prepared.

I've been a student of such teachers.  It didn't do me  much good, either as an artist or a human being.  Because of this, I try very, very hard not to be that teacher.  And yet I found myself nodding when I heard Maria Callas (channelled through the expressive voice and intense presence of Tyne Daly) announcing that Art is Hard Work, and that singing an opera (or any other piece of dramatic vocal music) without understanding its words and context and history and psychology is simply a collection of beautiful notes without soul or meaning.  Which goes to show, I guess, that being a egoistic, insecure, emotional mess doesn't mean you can't be right about things.  And also that being right--or even being a world-famous genius--doesn't give you license to belittle, insult, mock, or dismiss someone who looks up to you and wants to learn from you.  

It is very much to Terrence McNally's credit that his play does equal justice to all facets of a more than usually complex personality. His Maria Callas is a fully-rounded character--pathetic, guarded, bitter, dedicated, cold, passionate, clueless, cruel, gracious, and as self-centered as a gyroscope.  I understand that Zoe Caldwell focused on the bitter, cruel, passionate aspects of La Divina.  Tyne Daly focuses on Callas as the walking wounded.  She plays a woman who cannot bear her own vulnerability, who is most comfortable with emotions mediated through music and art.  Every gesture of admiration or kindness from her accompanist, Manny (played with real compassion and patience by Jeremy Cohen) makes her freeze like a frightened rabbit, and either be dismissive or massively gracious or chilly.  Or all three.  She is great, she is brilliant, she is a sublime musician and interpreter of character and nuance.  She is also absolutely alone and emotionally isolated.  Not a nice woman, but a great one.

I'm glad to say that the real woman, Callas herself, was demonstrably nicer than McNally's character.  The July, the New York Times ran an article about the real master classes that Callas taught at Juilliard in 1971 and 1972.  It's well worth reading, but this is the part that struck me most:

At Juilliard she was frank and demanding but unfailingly patient and
encouraging. Above all, she was impressively precise in her technical
and interpretive critiques.

That's a description of a good teacher.  Probably not as entertaining on a Broadway stage as the sacred monster who I watched cleverly reducing students to quivering heaps of nerves last night, but a whole lot more useful, both to herself and to the art she served and loved all her life.  I can't hope to be as great a writer as she was a singer, but I can do my level best to be a frank, demanding, precise, patient, encouraging teacher. 

The play is running until September 4, and there are TDF tickets for it.  Go, if you can.  It's worth it for the music and the commentary on the arias alone.  I'll never listen to the Letter Scene from Verdi's Macbeth or the Antonio's opening aria from Tosca the same way again.


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