Theater review: 'Master Class' -- 3.5 stars
"When you're fat and ugly, you had better have a couple of high F's you can interpolate into your life."
Such is the blunt advice delivered by the difficult and exacting Greek-American soprano Maria Callas to an audience of opera fans in Terrence McNally's 1995 play "Master Class," which is receiving an excellent revival from Manhattan Theatre Club starring Tyne Daly.
The play is based on a series of master classes that Callas - once the world's most prominent dramatic soprano - held at the Juilliard School in the early 1970s after her singing voice had weakened.
Callas spends much of the play dissecting, criticizing and reshaping the performances of three young opera singers - two of whom aspire to achieve her success, and another who finally reacts to her bullying by pointing out how Callas caused her own downfall.
At two points, she loses track of time and dips into memories of being an overlooked conservatory student, her marriage to an older man and then her affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
Even if the play is essentially a monologue mixed with some opera selections, it makes for a thrilling ride and is one of McNally's most compelling works.
The role of Callas was originated by Zoe Caldwell, who was then replaced by Patti LuPone.
Daly wears an extraordinary amount of makeup in order to resemble the real-life Callas - so much so that it functions rather like a mask that limits the expressive quality of her face.
But as directed by Stephen Wadsworth, Daly combines the character's tough exterior and emotional ferocity with pitch-perfect comedic timing, the theatricality of a diva, and apparent signs of insecurity and vulnerability.
Sierra Boggess ("The Little Mermaid"), Alexandra Silber and Garrett Sorenson make charismatic turns as Callas' brave students and offer impressive vocal renditions from several bel canto operas.
If you go: "Master Class" plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Aug. 21. 261 W. 47th St., 212-239-6200, telecharge.com.