Watching Terrence McNally’s play “Master Class” is a rather schizophrenic experience for me. On one hand, there is the pleasure that seeing a well-crafted drama always produces. On the other, the memories of Maria Callas’ actual master classes at the Juilliard School are still quite vivid in my mind. I was there, and learned more from auditing those classes than from all my years of other musical studies combined.
It started with a small advertisement the Juilliard School placed in the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times in the fall of 1971. A series of master classes titled “The Lyric Tradition” would be taught by Maria Callas from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays. A few tickets for each class were available to anyone who wanted to observe. The price? Five dollars to watch one of the world’s greatest singers work with 25 young hopefuls over the course of 23 classes.
The auditorium wasn’t entirely full for the first class, almost as if no one believed the diva was actually going to show up to teach. But soon enough, the classes were sold out. At 48, Callas had not performed in public for several years and had been living as a near recluse in her Paris apartment.
I was a 24-year-old conducting student and had just discovered that live performances by Callas were available on pirate records — if one knew where to look and whom to ask. Listening to those LPs of the soprano in her prime had changed my life. So it was unthinkable to miss an opportunity to study with his legend, even secondhand.
Maria Callas the teacher could not have been more different from Maria Callas of the popular press. People who came to the classes expecting to see explosions of diva temperament or hear nasty remarks about her colleagues were out of luck. The only occasional sharp remarks Callas made were to her audience: telling an autograph seeker no, or reminding us, “Please, no applause. This is a class. We’re here to work.”
Work. That was the operative word, no doubt about it. Callas was legendary for her capacity to rehearse for hours and hours in the theater, then go home and practice even more. She treated her students as if they shared her own sense of dedication. Once when a student began making excuses for some mistakes, Callas cut her off by raising a hand and saying, “Hush — and sing.” When another student tried to explain why she couldn’t sing all the trills in a piece, Callas interrupted her with: “I’m sure you can, if you try hard enough.”
As the classes continued and a rapport developed between some of the students and Callas, a few tried to joke with her. But Callas had very little sense of humor. The only truly funny moment I remember came when she was working with a young soprano on Violetta’s “Addio del passato” from the last act of Verdi’s La Traviata. The heartbreaking aria ends with a five-note phrase that is repeated four times, the last time going up to a high A. The score indicates that the last note is to be sung very, very softly. It is quite difficult to pull off.
Callas, one of the great Violettas of the 20th century, wanted the student to “build the tension” (a favorite phrase of hers) from one repetition to the next. When the student looked puzzled, Callas began to sing the end of the aria in full voice. A shiver went through the auditorium as Callas’ voice rose securely. The phrases grew, exactly as Callas had asked the student to do, becoming filled with all of Violetta’s despair. It was the perfect example of the union of words and notes, drama and emotion into an overwhelming whole. As the phrase reached its climactic final note, Callas, rather than attempting the tricky A, stopped short and spoke. “So see, dear, you must gradually build it.”
When the audience groaned in disappointment, Callas turned to us, grinned a bit ruefully, and extended her right arm, palm up, as if to say, “Well, you win some, you lose some.”
Though she was adamant that the classes were about young singers working on operatic repertoire, not about Maria Callas, my most vivid memories are of her demonstrating how an aria should work. The first time I heard Callas sing live was while she worked with a baritone on Iago’s famous “Credo” from Act II of Verdi’s Otello. The next to the last phrase is “E poi? E poi? La morte è il nulla.” (And then? And then? Death is nothingness.) Again, Callas was trying to get the student to shape the short musical sections into one overarching whole.
“Like this,” she said, and began “E poi” full-voiced and in the baritone’s register. Her dark, husky lower voice had us instantly on the edges of our seats as her Iago asked, “And then? And then?” When the answer came, and Callas sang the word “Nulla,” it was a magnificently horrifying moment. All the emptiness, blackness, nothingness of Iago’s soul were suddenly laid bare, just by the way Callas sang that single word. It ruined me for any other Iago.
Similarly, Callas’ rendition of the opening of Rigoletto’s “Cortigiani” has ruined me for any other Rigoletto. The young baritone who was working on that aria did not seem to grasp the emotional situation in which the title character finds himself in the second act of Verdi’s opera. “Bite into the words,” Callas instructed, and just the way she spoke the opening phrase, “Corigiani, vil razza dannata,” conveyed more anger and fury than any Rigoletto I’ve heard sing the role.
When the student still did not seem to fully grasp what she meant, Callas suddenly launched into the aria. The audience shuddered as her broken voice, pushed to its very edge, created a Rigoletto almost out of control, railing vainly against fate. It was not pretty, but it was great singing. And above all, it was real.
“It must be real,” she repeated over and over, constantly working with her students to convey every nuance of the emotion. “Forget you’re singing. Think expression.” Which is not to suggest Callas tolerated missed notes of sloppy rhythms. “You must have great expression, but always on the notes,” she insisted.
It was this absolute respect for the composer and librettist that was perhaps the greatest legacy of Callas’ master classes. For her, each note had a reason to exist. Individual notes in a musical phrase were like individual words in spoken phrase. No two should ever have quite the same expression. They were either going toward a climax or falling from it. It sounds simple, but it takes an astounding amount of hard work.
In these days when stage directors so often mangle an opera in a vain attempt to try to make it “dramatic” or “relevant,” I often find myself wishing they had audited Callas’ master classes and learned what astonishing drama is already there.
As Callas said, just before leaving the stage after her last class, “Whether I continue singing or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that you use whatever you have learned wisely. Think of the expression of the words, of good diction, and of your own deep feelings. The only thanks I ask is that you sing properly and honestly. If you do this, I will feel repaid.”
This article originally appeared in the Datebook section of the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle on August 17, 1997.