The Theatreguide.London Review
Vaudeville Theatre Winter-Spring 2012
A fascinatingly imagined portrait of a great artist and the occasion of an actress's performance of impressive power and authority make this revival of Terrence McNally's drama a must-see.
The play imagines operatic diva Maria Callas offering a class to aspiring singers (as Callas did briefly in the 1970s). Three singers come before her, attempt to sing, and are interrupted by her criticism and coaching.
In between, she natters on about her own career, her values and passions as a singer, and her personal life, notably her long affair with Aristotle Onassis. (The Onassis sections are the weakest parts of the script, their soap opera tone lowering and distracting from the serious and impassioned discussion of the music.)
McNally's Callas demands of her students that they not just make pretty noises, but commit to the music, feeling the emotion, fully imagining where and when their character is, and still being technically precise and enunciating clearly.
In short, she is giving them what amount to very basic acting lessons, but opera-buff McNally knows that acting, and not just making pretty sounds, was the revolution Callas brought to twentieth-century opera.
Though there are others onstage, this comes very close to being a one-woman show, and requires an actress not only of star quality but with the ability to convey the character's passionate commitment to her art. And those who know Tyne Daly only as a journeyman television actress may be surprised by how much authenticity and believability she brings to the role.
Though she affects an accent and a few minor Callas mannerisms, this is not mere impersonation. Rather, as sensitively directed by Stephen Wadsworth, Daly plays essence-of-diva.
Whether or not the actual Callas was exactly like this is irrelevant. The fictional character 'Callas' is real and convincing in Daly's portrayal – convincing not just as a characterisation, but as a voice expressing her passionate love of music and arguing the values of professionalism and artistic commitment. I can imagine a young singer being as inspired by this performance (though perhaps not learning as much about singing) as he or she might be by Callas herself.
The student singers and an amusingly tentative pianist are well played, but frankly you won't notice or remember them. It is McNally's loving portrait of the woman and artist, and Tyne Daly's complete immersion of herself into the role, that carry the evening.
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