Master Class — one night only
Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Leslie Uggams, Edie Falco, Dixie Carter, and Maria Tucci as Maria Callas at the one night-only production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class. 9:30 PM. Photo: JH.

Hot as Hades in New York yesterday and all you can think is: it’s not even summer yet!

Master Classes and the people who can teach them. Last night at the Broadhurst Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera Guild presented a one-night only production of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” starring (in alphabetical order) Kathy Bates, Dixie Carter, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange, Maria Tucci and Leslie Uggams ... as Maria Callas. I saw the original production which featured the great Zoe Caldwell as Callas.

As one who once studied acting and who has sat in on Master Classes of various training, I could appreciate the theatricality of Ms. Caldwell’s personality, and I knew that she, a consummate actress, understood it perfectly. Master Classes are not for the faint of heart, for those who lead them are often Masters themselves and not imbued with infinite patience. In the theatre Masters expert mastery, or move on boy; something that is sadly, even pathetically missing in so much of contemporary performing arts.

I anticipated last night’s production as an intriguing exercise, for, after all six quite different actresses, quite different types all playing (a piece) of the Callas part, could not possibly maintain the whole fabric of an actor’s performance. Callas, for example, was Greek born and bred, lived in Brooklyn but lived out her adult life in Europe. She was, to these American eyes and ears, a distinctly foreign persona. Kathy Bates is distinctly American. So, for that matter, is Dixie Carter. And Jessica Lange? And Edie Falco? Hello…! Could they bring that European-ness to the character?

Maria Callas as Norma

Didn’t matter. Also Leslie Uggams and Maria Tucci also, they all moved almost seamlessly through their sections of the play, replacing each other right before our eyes, without missing a beat but also without intruding on the other’s performance. Each brought to her performance her experiences of being touched by greatness.

In the program notes, Terrence McNally wrote about La Divina: “Listening to Callas is not a passive experience. It is a conversation with her and, finally, ourselves. Callas speaks to us when she sings. She tells us her secrets – her pains, her joys – and we tell her ours right back.”

That’s what she did last night through the six great actresses on the stage of the Broadhurst (where “History Boys” is currently running). They were all demonstrating the power and the ultimate vulnerability of a great talent. It was one of those thrilling nights in the theatre, where you’re transported and transformed. The audience had an evening of wit, laughter, wisdom and the powerful element of pain that comes with all great passion, a moment’s reminder of the greater reality for all of us.

The production was directed by Leonard Foglia, who directed the original, and David Loud who played the accompanist in the original production re-created his role.

The Metropolitan Opera Guild is an organization of opera lovers who do everything in their power to support and promote opera (especially at the Met). Their annual luncheon, which is their big fundraiser always honors a great opera star and always features of roster of opera greats as guests. And it’s always a rousing event because opera lovers are cultural fanatics and they love the gamut of emotions. One of the interesting aspects of the Met Opera Guild is its vast and diverse membership of all kinds of people, from all walks of life, all of whom share a love and devotion for opera. They personify Terrence McNally’s explanation of the Callas fans and admirers: It’s a conversation between the performers and the audience. As he said of Callas: “(she) speaks to us … She tells us her secrets – her pains, her joys – and we tell her ours right back.” The taste of freedom.

Outside the Broadhurst Theatre
Jessica Lange
Kathy Bates
Jay Hunter Morris
Dixie Carter
Maria Tucci
Edie Falco
Donna Lynne Champlin
Leslie Uggams
Sherry Boone
Last night's crowd giving a standing ovation
Taking their bows at last night's performance of Master Class.

And speaking of Masters or those who could conduct such a class – in his or her field of endeavor – yesterday lunchtime at Michael’s saw Arianna Huffington, the most glittering political pundit on the internet (or, if you want, in the media) these days. If you haven’t read her, then you don’t know why a lot of mainstream media opinion-makers and journalists are awed but not pleased with her success. She says not the unsayable but what so many others who evidently have half a brain aren’t willing to say.

Mrs. Huffington began her career in America here in New York. Back in the 1970s or 80s. From the outset she always had a knack for positioning herself amongst the moneyed elite as well as the politically powerful (they’re first cousins in our world).

Her skill at social maneuvering made her both amusing and admirable, and controversial. They gossiped about her objectives but couldn’t take her intellectual prowess away from her. Or match it. She wrote books. And promoted them far and wide. She wrote a biography of Maria Callas, as a matter of fact, that was a big seller as well as being controversial because of the author’s methods and techniques.

When she lived in New York in those early years, she was known by her maiden name, Arianna Stassinopoulos, as a brilliant Greek woman who’d attended Girton College at Cambridge University. When there she was President of the Cambridge Union Society and had a reputation for being an excellent debater. She graduated with an MA in economics. She then moved to London where she was soon one of the intellectual darlings of the London party circuits.

Plus she had charm. The Question was always: what is she after? Fame? Fortune? A rich husband? All of the above? Everyone recognized that she was fiercely ambitious and as aggressive about realizing her objectives. Rich and generous friends got to experience being both rich and generous around Arianna. She took advantage of both when it came her way and suited her needs.

Here in Manhattan circles it was assumed she wanted the “regular”: a guy with big bucks. Not just any guy of course. What she ended up with, having been introduced by her friend and sponsor, Ann Getty, was Mr. Huffington, the Texas oil scion who was very rich.


We all know Mr. Huffington ran for Congress in California and won, and the couple went to Washington. Once there, Arianna employed her talents in making a place for herself amongst the conservative punditry (as opposed to her current position amongst the largely liberal punditry). She also served as the good wife.

The next part of the story is where the marriage fell apart. In People Magazine, and Mrs. Huffington moved to Los Angeles. “Arianna is going to become a liberal,” a mutual friend who enjoys great economic power and social access, remarked with amusement at the time, adding: “Because she wants to know David Geffen.”

After the Huffington marriage was dissolved, there was again speculation as to what the lady would do next. The consensus was that she was never going to be The First Lady a la Bill-and-Hillary or a Nancy-and-Ronnie. She could forget that one. So she still hadn’t lived up to her fan's, observer's, friend's and detractor's expectations. She hadn’t clearly identified what all those brains and wit and bravado were meant to add up to.

I believe she finally has with the Huffington Post. She has already won a huge audience as diverse as the membership of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. I don’t doubt that her power is her voice which speaks plainly and clearly to the notion of common sense.

Last Friday night I had dinner with another mutual friend she and I share and Arianna once again came up. He hadn’t seen the Huffington Post. He had no idea. But he wasn’t surprised. He told me about an incident that occurred a number of years ago when Arianna was first making her way in New York. She had a pleasant apartment at 67th and Lexington. It wasn’t grand like so many of her very rich friends, but it was comme il faut.

At that point Arianna was famous for being present at many a dinner table, but not as a hostess herself. By now she was acquainted with a large number of the Jet Set/Beautiful People/Tycoons and Courtesans. And artists and writers. She decided to bring some of them together. She gave a dinner “in honor” of a very distinguished gentleman, so distinguished that people would drop everything just to be in attendance.

That night, during the cocktail hour, one of the female guests – the wife of a very famous designer, and she herself known for her driving ambition and cleverness – slipped into Arianna’s dining room and had a look at the placement. Placement, (plahs-mon) if you didn’t know is considered one of the rarest of arts as the world gets rarer. Placement is political, just as it was with the Bourbons. Social yes, but political more.

So, back to the dining room. Quickly assessing the placement, the designer’s wife, with feline agility, quietly but suddenly stopped in front of one place setting and, very quickly (“like three card monty” was how it was described by the single witness), switched two place cards.

A few minutes later the dinner guests were invited in to dine. When the hostess, then Ms. Stassinopoulos, went to take her seat (that she had assigned herself) with the guest of honor in his proper place on her right, she discovered that her place had been switched. Designer Wife’s card was now in her place, with the guest of honor on her right. So, obviously… that left poor Arianna sitting with her guest of honor on her left and trumped by Designer’s Wife. Designer’s Naughty Wife. Wicked Wife. Hmmm …

However, within moments, the charming, gracious hostess stood up, called her dinner guests to attention, and raised her glass to her Guest of Honor. She told the room that she knew that it was considered “proper” for a guest of honor to be seated to the right of the hostess. But, she added, in this case, she seated her guest of honor to her left …  because that was where her heart was – on her left side – and she wanted him to be closer to her heart.

So take that Designer’s Wife. Arianna had laid out her case and flipped a petty social slight into an aphorism about human relations. “She didn’t even need time to plan it; she just came out with it,” my friend recalled in the telling. He did not know that although he had not yet read the Huffington Post, the personality that he was recounting was the one who created this important and widely read web site. As the late Lester Persky, the Hollywood producer, (and an enthusiastic acquaintance of Arianna) often used to say, “you can’t kid a kidder.”


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June 20, 2006, Volume VI, Number 101
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch/


© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/