Liz Smith: Tyne Daly Hits All the High Notes in Broadway’s “Master Class”

The great Tyne Daly as Maria Callas in Broadway's "Master Class"

And more from our Gossip Girl: “Cagney & Lacey” star soars as as opera’s greatest diva, Maria Callas

“IF I have stepped on some people at times because I am at the top, it couldn’t be helped. What should I do if someone gets hurt … retire?”

So said opera’s grandest, greatest, most infuriating and exhilarating diva: Maria Callas.

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I HAVE always admired the drama that Texas playwright Terrence McNally concocted out of historical fact and his fervent love of opera and its stars. So it was a thrill for me to go see “Master Class” again in its current hit run at New York’s Friedman Theater. This time it stars the award-winning Tyne Daly. And it’s a delightful surprise. The audience I saw it with was eager to applaud Daly and Callas almost before anything had happened onstage. This attitude was something like what actually used to occur in the days of grand opera when stars were really stars and everybody was in love – or hate – with them. (You were for Joan Sutherland or Callas. Renata Tebaldi – ha! There was no indifferent in-between.)

In 1995, I saw the first McNally version of this raucous and thrilling story of Maria Callas in her later years teaching a master class to young singers. And – sharing in a clever turn before a past theater curtain — her innermost tragedies, her claw to the top, her rejection of the husband who started her career, her “acceptance” at La Scala and the world over by the Viscontis and Rainiers of international society, and ultimately, her love affair with the shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. He bounced her for an upgrade in  “class” by marrying the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy.

The first “Master Class” production starred the great Zoe Caldwell. Then Patti LuPone made a triumph out of her turn as the quixotic star. And, surprise, surprise, the late comic actress, Dixie Carter, overcame her physical beauty and turned in a great performance as the more earthy Callas by her turn in 1997.

But this time, Tyne Daly gives a delightful, insightful turn as a glamorous fading queen who lords it over the eager aspiring students come to learn at her knee. And a few of these stalwarts actually overcome the Callas ego to prove that the opera rave did indeed love and know her stuff. Her interruptions, her asides, her demands for footstool, cushion and water, her constant reiterations to the audience – “But that’s another story…” are all delightful and absorbing. You don’t know, as you didn’t know with the real Callas in real life, whether to smash her or break into a standing ovation.

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THE USUALLY blue collar actress Tyne Daly, who was such a big TV hit in “Cagney & Lacey” and who has since proved over and over that she is a true Broadway star (her Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” for instance) has shown once again that she can play against her “supposed” type. Onstage as the mercurial, ego-driven, status-mad, spurned woman, who has abused and lost her voice, she is magical.

(Tyne Daly has come a long way from the day when she got killed onscreen as the intrepid but callow partner of Clint Eastwood in “The Enforcer” — the third of Clint’s “Dirty Harry” movies.)

I know a lot about the real Maria Callas from my Italian and Greek friends who worshipped and feared her. I know very little about opera. But there is just the right mix of art, ego and downfall in this play to make you appreciate, salute and deplore the protagonist. The audience adores Tyne/Maria and she encourages their applause as she resists it. This is quite a feat. Tyne is truly effective as a very great ego brought low … a cruel status craver who is still a very great artist … a “has been” exponent of glamour who still had what it took. And a woman with a song in her heart (if you will) who has been laid low by a false and tragic love.

Her amazing cast of unknowns is quite up to their job, delineating what it’s like to touch the hem of stardom. And the understanding of the price for all that is the secret Tyne shows us as Maria Callas. Quite a star in her own right – Tyne Daly!

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ENDQUOTE: “Don’t talk to me about rules, dear. Wherever I am I make goddamn rules.”

Another charming remark from Maria Callas.

I figured it would be pointless to finish out this column with any subject other than Callas. I’d almost be a little afraid to do that. As Norma Desmond snarled —“What?  Cut away from me?” Come to think of it, Callas might have made the greatest triumph of her career, had she lived, playing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Norma, rather than Bellini’s.

7 comments so far.

  1. avatar rick gould says:

    Tyne Daly sounds fascinating as Callas…

    A dozen or more years ago, I saw Faye Dunaway play the role in Chicago. A diva playing a diva! It also seemed Faye was intent on doing a film version of this with Al Pacino playing Ari in flashbacks… but even then sounded like wishful thinking on her part.

  2. avatar Paul Smith says:

    Not being a Callas fan, I did force myself to see Ms. Caldwell’s performance. Why instead not a play about the imperious Rudolph Bing? But, the young woman who tried to impress the Ms. Callas character was none other than Audra McDonald, whose climb up the musical scales raised the rafters and everyone’s hair in the first few rows. Now she sings dull standards and no one barely notices. Plan to catch Ms. Daly and expect another round of eager, challenging singing againgst a background of Ms.Callas’s mournful hurts and regrets.

  3. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Someone made the comment once that while some viewed Maria Callas as “the other woman” in reality Aristotle Onassis was the “other man” and despite the assumption made otherwise she was quite content with the situation and she of course became even more famous when it became apparent that even the world’s most famous woman couldn’t keep Onassis from the world’s most famous mistress although he, again, was far more the mistress than she. 

    Just the same she supposedly cursed the newlyweds and some wondered as the years went by if she was as talented with casting spells off stage as she was on.  Especially when John F Kennedy, Jr was killed in a plane crash just as Alexander Onassi had been.

  4. avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

    Tyne Daly is and always has been wonderfully talented. Anyone who has underestimated her is, in my opinion, losing opportunities to see a special actor!

  5. avatar Daniel Sugar says:

    I saw Elizabeth Ashley play the role. She was great.

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  7. avatar French Heart says:

    Saw Faye Dunaway in the role in San Francisco. Could not get up from seat for a few minutes after was over. Was dazzled

    Saw Elizabeth Ashley in ‘D.V.’ Think she is fabulous–but was miscast in that. She’s a southern Magnolia–not a spitfire. Loved D.V. & heard the person originally cast was fantastic. Think that could be reprised. Starring Meryl Streep! Or maybe Carine Roitfeld–now that she’s not tied-up at French Vogue. She’d have to lose the French accent–but definitely could morph the D.V. vibe!