Diva Maria Callas, Real and Imagined : Commentary: Playwright Terrence McNally re-creates her image--the little lines may be fuzzy, but the large strokes are clear.

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Terrence McNally, whose "Master Class" has brought the lofty art of Maria Callas to the Mark Taper Forum, is an opera expert worth taking seriously.

I first suspected that 20 years ago when, in the course of an inspired bit of foolishness called "The Ritz," he staged a Zinka Milanov look-alike contest in a gay bath-house.

I have known it all too well on numerous subsequent occasions when we happened to share the microphone during the quiz-game intermissions on Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. McNally was the fellow who always had the answers. I was the one who stammered.

The truth was confirmed again when McNally came up with "The Lisbon Traviata," a terrific play in which the quest for a pirated Callas recording becomes a matter of life or death for a mismatched pair of opera obsessives.

Still, I approached "Master Class" with some trepidation. It is one thing to worship a diva. It is another thing to re-create her.

McNally doesn't really re-create Callas. He re-creates her image and he conveys a suggestion of her impact. The little lines may be fuzzy, but the large strokes are clear.

Callas wasn't just a diva. She probably was the last of the fiery-exotic breed. She was a force of nature, bigger than life. She was brilliant and temperamental, magnetic yet aloof, flamboyant yet vulnerable. Most important, she was a formidable singing- actress --the rare, real, illuminating thing.

Callas' voice, in its short-lived prime, could be very beautiful--dark, lush, flexible, wide-ranging in both scale and dynamics. It also could be rather ugly--wobbly under pressure, uncertain in pitch, prone to harsh register breaks.

Her detractors preferred the placid purity of her rival Renata Tebaldi. Callas' passionate supporters rejoiced in her ability to define character instantly, poignantly and simply, in matters of sight as well as sound. They felt her vocal problems were a small price to pay for musical and dramatic revelations.

In 1971, she came out of virtual retirement to teach a series of master classes at Juilliard. McNally uses those classes, with considerable poetic license, as a point of departure to explore the fragile nature of interpretive art.

Zoe Caldwell, who portrays Callas on behalf of McNally, gives a dazzling extrovert performance, teetering neatly between heroism and caricature. She does not--repeat, not --imitate Callas. That may be just as well.

Callas was 47 when she turned to teaching. Caldwell is older. Callas was glamorous, relatively tall and willowy. Caldwell isn't.

For all her imperious authority, Callas was soft. Caldwell plays her crusty. Callas' intelligence seemed instinctive. Caldwell makes her a discerning intellectual. Callas wasn't noted for her sense of humor, much less her sense of irony. Caldwell's Callas is wisely wicked.

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Callas might have laughed at the way Caldwell mangles the Italian language, and, in a key Wagnerian reference, German too. But Callas would, no doubt, have recognized certain key elements in Caldwell's portrait--her stillness, her focus, her self-discipline, her gestural economy. And, yes, the dramatic use of her large, expressive eyes.

The soprano might have been troubled by the croaking sounds emitted by the actress in the one awful moment when she attempts to sing. Callas was no longer capable of singing "Norma" at the time of the master classes, but she certainly was still capable of singing. Luckily, recordings of the diva in all her glory are heard during eerie reflective monologues in which the glorious past haunts the painful present.

McNally's accuracy level is high--so high that his infrequent lapses jar the senses. When the young Callas auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera in 1946, the general manager was Edward Johnson, not Rudolf Bing, as the play would have it. When the first hapless student attempts to sing an aria in the classroom, Callas interrupts before the first tone has begun to evaporate. But, according to John Ardoin, the diva's Boswell, the actual students "performed an aria in toto, and then Callas retraced the music phrase by phrase, and even note by note, often singing entire sections to illustrate her points."

Callas wasn't as impatient, as eccentric or as egocentric at Juilliard as her shade makes her seem at the Taper. She may have been playing to an audience that included Franco Zeffirelli, Lillian Gish, Tito Gobbi, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Bidu Saya~o and a lot of critics; still, her intentions remained primarily pedagogical.

Of the three arias auditioned for her in the play, only one--"Recondia armonia" from "Tosca"--appears to have been on her actual master-class agenda. It seems unlikely, moreover, that Callas would have let a light soprano like the presumably fictitious Sharon Graham (Audra McDonald) attempt Lady Macbeth's heavyweight entrance aria. And if she heard an all-American tenor galoomph through a Puccini romanza, as the mock student (Jay Hunter Morris) does here, it is unlikely that she would respond with, "That was beautiful; I have nothing to say."

Callas used the master classes primarily to impart her knowledge. Unlike her theatrical double, she didn't indulge in much gossip or recollection. Ardoin writes that she offered "detailed talk on matters purely of technique . . . breathing, phrasing, trills--as well as deportment."

"Don't just open your mouth," she reportedly implored her students. "Open your throat."

Ironically, Callas also used the master classes as a means of bolstering her flagging self-confidence. When she wasn't performing publicly as a teacher she was working privately as a student herself--with the uncompromising coach Alberta Masiello--trying to facilitate the comeback that was not to succeed.

McNally's narrative takes drastic shortcuts. It compresses a lot of information. It plays loose with certain historic minutiae. It often is more subjective than objective. Even so, it conveys an arresting impression of a troubled artist consumed by the quest for truth and tortured by her own frailties.

"Master Class" isn't meant to be a documentary. It is an engaging piece of theater that happens to be inspired by fact and predicated on affection.

* "Master Class" continues at the Mark Taper Forum of the Music Center through June 25, Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2:30, Sunday night at 7:30. Tickets $28-$35. (213) 972-0700.

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