Interpolating High F’s

“I sang Norma better than anyone had in years and I interpolated a high F at the end of the first act… you had better have a couple of high F’s you can interpolate into your life.”

I treated myself to a trip to the Kennedy Center on Wednesday to see the current run of Terrence McNally’s Master Class starring Tyne Daly.  An amazing tour de force.

True confessions: I have avoided this play up till now.  I read it about ten years ago, acknowledging that I needed to be familiar with this piece whose entire identity is so bound up with the cult of opera.  But the idea of actually sitting in the theatre for two hours and watching it was enough to make me blanch, and I never followed through.

It’s not that I’m not a Callas fan.  It’s that my own response to the phenomenon of the star-turn/student-abuse that often masquerades as a Master Class is no secret. My last foray into this jungle was in 2005, and it stirred up more than a bit of controversy. (Here, here and here.)  I’m not sure I have the stomach for doing it all over again, but I will say that even though I was in awe of McNally’s insight and Daly’s prowess, sitting through it made me physically sick.

It also gave me plenty of time to ruminate.   I won’t bore you with all of it, but here’s the distillation.

In my perfect world, no one, no matter how gifted and famous, would treat another human being with anything less than the respect that we all deserve.  It’s a worldview that is both naive and non-negotiable.  I want to rail at people who can’t see beyond themselves – no matter who they are.  Unfortunately, this is not the case in any business where egos are pumped up then polished diamond-hard.

The reality of it is that in the high-risk/high-reward worlds of professional theatre, music, sports, etc, we want our stars to be larger than life.  We want them to take chances we never would dare, and we want them to suffer so we can do so vicariously.  We offer them up, chew them up and spit them out.  And the outsize egos and difficult dynamics that come from these people are simply the other side of the coin.  We want them to be big and bad, but only onstage – in the rehearsal hall and the master classroom we wish them to be collegial, flexible, open and warm.  And that’s just not going to happen.

This doesn’t mean that some salt-of-the-earth people aren’t also riveting performing artists.  I know some of them.  And God bless them for staying humane while they live this crazy performer’s life.  They do seem to be rare, though, among the ranks of supernaturally gifted artists.

The rest of them are interpolating high F’s into their lives – onstage and off.  We depend on them to open up our own emotional lives to a place where our trials seem trivial, and we need to remind ourselves that sometimes this comes at a cost.



I find this play interesting, and I can see how it is such an attractive role for an actress. However, my problem is with the play itself. I diminishes Callas’s importance as the true artist that she was, as well as her total devotion and her selflessness when it came to her art. Luckily, the actual master classes were recorded, and throughout the entire thing, Callas is completely professional, encouraging, supportive, and an excellent teacher. She is completley honest with the students, but never mean, demeaning, or belittling. One of my favorite comments is when a student says a phrase is impossible, Callas answers, “Nothing is impossible; not for you, Shiela.”
This play, on the other hand, turns this great artist into a self-absorbed, jealous, and self-aggrandizing parody of a Diva cliche. As much as it keeps Callas alive, it dinimishes her as a person and an artist.

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