At one point during Michael Hollinger’s Opus, now playing at New Repertory Theatre, the members of the fictional Lazara Quartet recall how an old teacher told them the four musicians should play as one instrument. This is not only true of chamber music but also in theatre where great ensemble acting can make the world come alive and the characters’ passions infectious. New Rep’s Opus has a near pitch-perfect ensemble excellently orchestrated by director Jim Petosa.
The play unfolds to a docudrama with scenes and dialogue supposedly pulled from a documentary produced about the quartet. The audience is introduced to the quartet’s members in the midst of change: they have fired their brilliant but difficult violist, Dorian (Benjamin Evett) and replaced him with a newly minted conservatory graduate Grace (Becky Webber). The hope, perhaps that of the first violinist Elliot (Michael Kaye), is that the temper tantrums, passionate disagreements, are behind them. What the audience learns with the remaining members, though, is that the search for excellence and perfection fuels passions owned by all artists embedded in the subjectivity the interpretation of classical texts. The quartet operates democratically, without a defined leader. When there is a tie, a coin toss resolves it all. We learn that’s how a decade earlier Alan became first violin instead of Dorian.
We see the members of the quartet in rehearsals, recordings, socializing, and backstage before and after a performance at the White House (for a President none of the quartet members voted for or whom they expect to enjoy their music). The ensemble is strong with the individual actors creating performances with more depth than the clichés on which lesser performers and directors would have relied on. The grounded center of the group (and of the play as the drama unfolds) is the cellist Carl, performed with great humanity showing all his generosity and flaws, by Bates Wilder. Shelly Bolman’s second violinist Alan rounds out the cast nicely by embracing the romanticism anyone may have in being an artist. He does this while giving us all a gentle reality check, telling of the isolation of extended times on the road in foreign countries.
Director Petosa and sound designer Benjamin Emerson have found excellent ways to compensate for not having actors who are also virtuoso string musicians. Quite frankly, it’s better that way, too. Allowing a mix of tableaus wrapped in music rather than isolating them to the moments where the quartet is supposedly performing creates the effect of having the audience enveloped in music. All of the action is played against the warm tones of Scott Pinkney’s lighting on Cristina Todesco’s serviceable set designed to evoke the body of a string instrument with “strings” from floor to ceiling.
Michael Hollinger’s Opus will be intriguing to anyone who is interested in what it means to strive for excellence and perfection in their chosen field. It gives us insight into the nature of collaboration, creation, commitment and, of course, compromise when creating anything. By the end of it, audience members won’t be tired of the classical music. Instead they may be inspired to revisit these works, listening for the passion of the ensemble in every movement and note.