07/28/2011 01:05 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2011

Master Class

The only time I could have heard Maria Callas sing opera was in March of 1965. I happened to be in Paris when she was going to do a few performances of Tosca. Early the morning the tickets went on sale there was already a line several people deep all the way around the Paris Opera House. Even if I had joined it, the likelihood of my getting a ticket was slim, especially since the cheap seats -- which were all someone doing Europe on $5 a day could afford -- would have been the first to sell.

Doubtless higher priced tickets were being scalped, but I would not have known how to buy one. In retrospect whatever it cost, it would have been worth it. I have a friend who had a subscription to the Old Met around that time, when Callas also sang Tosca there. My friend and her husband were not opera aficionados, but as soon as she heard Callas's offstage "Mario! Mario!" -- even from the upper reaches of the Family Circle -- she knew she was in for something extraordinary.

At that time, of course, Callas had as many detractors as fans. Her singing was often unorthodox -- if the character she was portraying was ugly her voice reflected it. She was committed to drama, to tragedy, not just pretty sounds.

With her early death at the age of 53 she passed from a figure of controversy immediately into legend. Playwright Terrence McNally dealt with that legend twice, first 20 some years ago in a hilarious play about an opera fanatic called The Lisbon Traviata, then 15 years ago in Master Class, which has just been revived with Tyne Daly as Callas.

Master Class is based, very roughly, on a series of master classes Callas gave at Juilliard in the early '70s. McNally uses the device of Callas teaching young singers to delve into her understanding of her art. The play also has interior monologues in which McNally probes her complicated personal life, particularly her relationship with her superwealthy fellow Greek, Aristotle Onassis.

Just as Callas lost a huge amount of weight in mid-career, becoming what would have been unimaginable only a few years earlier -- a figure of great glamour -- Daly has shed many pounds so she can convey a woman of elegance and style. She also projects Callas's fierce intelligence and wit.

But Daly is still a formidable physical figure, tall and imposing. I don't know what a woman of Daly's physical stature could do to give her character vulnerability -- but that is not here, and so her Callas comes across as a bully, which does not seem right.

My friend Meg Mundy was married to the Greek director who first worked with Callas in Athens when she was starting out. Callas remained loyal to him during her all too brief career on the opera stage. Meg said Callas suffered from terrible stage fright and practically had to be shoved out of the wings. That weakness was a counterweight to her huge ambition and artistic strength.

McNally's Callas was originated by Zoe Caldwell, a tiny woman, who brought out that other side very poignantly. My hunch is that Caldwell is not all that fragile, but she could suggest fragility. Daly can't.

Without that the play itself seems less balanced. With so much cattiness in evidence, especially in the often bitchy way she treats her terrified students, it now seems more an opera queen's rendition of the diva than a sympathetic portrait.

Still, the play remains entertaining, and in the singing of the three students -- Sierra Boggess, Alexandra Silber and especially tenor Garrett Sorenson -- musically satisfying. As a portrait of Callas, however, it seems coarser, harsher and less affectionate.