Of all the incisive moments in Terrence McNally's "Master Class," his Tony Award-winning tribute to the astonishing Maria Callas, the most compelling may be when "La Divina" - as her devoted fans called the soprano - mentions criticisms she received: "They said they didn't like my sound. But they didn't like my soul."
When Tyne Daly delivers that line in the Kennedy Center's exhilarating new production of the play, you feel all the truth and pain behind it. By that point in "Master Class," it's kind of hard to remember that the real Callas isn't on the Eisenhower Theater stage revealing her inner self, so persuasively does Daly animate the character.
And what a character. Callas forever changed the face and voice of opera history in the middle of the last century, reclaiming parts of the repertoire that had been neglected or mistreated by songbirds, providing a shock of theatrical truth at a time when most opera singers were content to stand and bark.
McNally, inspired by the much-documented master classes that Callas gave at New York's Juilliard School, 1971-1972, builds a clever vehicle for revealing a lot about the woman and her values. The class setting dissolves periodically as the soprano loses herself in memories.
The flaw in the playwright's premise is that students as unprepared, unpunctual and inappropriately dressed as those depicted would not have gotten within an inch of the real Callas in a master class. But by using such figures as foils, McNally is able to address, from myriad angles, the nature and responsibility of true art.
Directed with astute timing and emphasis by Stephen Wadsworth and effectively framed by set designer Thomas Lunch, this "Master Class" aces the test.
In some ways, Daly outshines even the great Zoe Caldwell, who created the Callas role to mesmerizing effect in 1995. For one thing, Daly is simply funnier, taking full advantage of the humor in McNally's text and adding an extra layer just by the way she manipulates her eyes or moves her shoulders. The actress captures Callas' curious speech patterns, right down to the "eh?" at the ends of phrases, and makes it all sound natural. The one snippet of music that Daly sings is galvanizing; she could easily get away with a lot more of that. (The real singing voice of Callas is woven into the play during the revelatory memory scenes.)
Soprano Laquita Mitchell does telling work as the initially cowed, finally defiant Sharon, who tackles Lady Macbeth's entrance aria from Verdi's "Macbeth." Alexandra Silber breezes through as the flighty soprano Sophie. Ta'u Pupu'a reveals a promising tenor voice and tentative acting skills. Jeremy Cohen is subtle and endearing as the accompanist, Manny.
When Daly's colorful Callas, with a simple "That's that," heads off after dispatching the last student, the wisdom and heart in her performance leave a lasting mark.