Monday, August 01, 2011

The real Callas master class

Terrence McNally’s 1995 play, “Master Class,” was inspired by the now legendary master classes that Maria Callas gave during the 1971-72 academic year at the Juilliard School. There were 23 two-hour sessions in all, and Callas worked with 25 students whom she had selected after listening to some 300 young singers in auditions.

To judge from the critic John Ardoin’s excellent 1987 book, “Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes” (Amadeus Press), and especially the classic three-disc EMI recording “Maria Callas at Juilliard,” which includes long extracts from her coaching of 10 student singers, Callas was not much like the imperious, self-absorbed prima donna of Mr. McNally’s play. At Juilliard she was frank and demanding but unfailingly patient and encouraging. Above all, she was impressively precise in her technical and interpretive critiques.

One student (the soprano Pamela Hebert) is captured singing Bellini’s aria “Casta diva” from “Norma.” If Callas had a signature role, it was that of Bellini’s druid priestess... On the recording she gives Ms. Hebert detailed comments, including astute explanations of ornamentation in the Bellini style. In the long-spun opening phrase on the words “Casta diva,” invoking a “chaste goddess,” Callas insists that the ornamental turn be sung evenly, on “one tone,” with all the notes clearly articulated.

Though on the recording Ms. Hebert’s sound is luscious, her initial singing lacks smoothness in the embellishments: some notes stick out more than others. Her second time through is more elegant. But in the next phrase, to Callas’s demanding ears, Ms. Hebert again cheats a bit on some notes.

“I will not let that go by,” Callas says, not sternly but insisting on musical and vocal integrity. She then helps Ms. Hebert to sing without “shifting gears” vocally...

A play that hewed closely to Callas’s detailed teaching during the Juilliard classes might not be great theater. But there is great drama in listening to Callas at Juilliard, so vulnerable and giving as she works with a new generation of singers, pushing aside for a while any thoughts about her own future. She died just five years later.

-- “Broadway’s Callas vs. Callas Herself,” by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times

As it happens, I have a copy of this CD recording--one I bought from the Virgin record store along the Champs Elysees in Paris two years ago. (Natch, I wish I could say that more often--yeah, you knooow, bought this at the Shanz in Paree.) The double-CD set was a bargain, marked down to 5 Euros from the original price of E16.80. Hello, P350 onli? Grab na! Apparently, to go by Mr. Tommasini's report, this was already an abridged version; the original release had 3 discs. But there I was, ruing a bit that I had come across the recording only about a year after Cherie Gil had debuted as a splendid Callas in the Philippine Opera Company's production of Master Class. (I could have used the CD as an additional study aid.)

Listening to the CD made me realize independently what Mr. Tommasini is saying above--that the actual master classes had far less fireworks and theatrical drama in them. Terrence McNally had employed expansive dramatic license in conjuring his portrait of Callas as a tempestuous, larger-than-life diva assoluta whipping up a storm during her Juilliard master classes. The Maria Callas that emerges from the recordings is, well, human-scaled--solicitous but firm in her ministrations to students, sharp and authoritative in her insights about the music (that, Mr. McNally got right) but also seemingly careful not to bludgeon her wards with them.

With its unexpected add-ons, the double CD I got proved to be a find in more ways than one. The Casta diva moment with soprano Pamela Hebert that Mr. Tommasini makes mention, for instance, is accompanied by the definitive 1954 recording of Callas herself singing the aria--perhaps the one track that has come to define Callas' legend as La Divina. Rossini's Una voce poco fa (from The Barber of Seville), fleshed out with Syble Young, is also followed by Callas' 1957 take on it. And so forth. This juxtaposition lends the recordings a poignant, haunting quality. Callas in her 1971-1972 master classes in America was but a shadow of her former glory, but she still sang every time, even in wobbly voice, to illustrate or underline a point (she doesn't at all in the McNally play). Hearing that ruined voice side by side with its younger self, when the Callas sound was at the blinding, breathtaking apogee of its beauty and splendor, is an extraordinary experience.

Here--sharing with you La Divina's Casta diva master class with Pamela Hebert (track 1), and her own peerless recording of it (track 2):


Anonymous said...

I felt like a voyeur listening to Ms. Callas giving lessons to Ms. Hebert. Very classy and giving lady. Such amazing voices; instruments really.

amateur ear said...

Kapag masterclass, usually may audience and it's set up on a stage, pero strictly speaking, there's no performance. Pero, yeah, para nga tayong mga voyeur listening/looking at artists before a performance (or recording), kaya medyo exciting. May mga masterclasses sa youtube. If you're into piano music and beethoven, you may want to watch the masterclass ni daniel barenboim sa new york, estudiante nya si lang lang.

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