Violist-turned-playwright Michael Hollinger took the long way home. His latest, Opus, is the result of caving in to the inevitable and writing about a world he knows well — an insider's look at a high-strung string quartet going through changes in program and personnel. It launches Primary Stages' 23rd season of new American works.
In the five plays that preceded this Opus, Hollinger fiddled away in radically different time zones on planets light-years removed from his personal experience. "Yeah, they bounce around in time and place and subject matter a lot," he's the first to confess.
But even that's an understatement: His previous play, Tooth and Claw, which had a 2004 Ensemble Studio Theatre run, dealt with environmental conflicts in the Galapagos Islands. It was preceded by Red Herring, the portrait of a Boston marriage during 1950s McCarthyism. Before that was Tiny Island, which concerned two estranged sisters and their faded movie palace on the Philadelphia Main Line of the early 1980s. Then there was Incorruptible, which took place in a French monastery in 1250 and focused on the holy-relics market. An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, his first full-length play (which Primary Stages did in 2000), was about culinary and bullfighting arts in 1961 Paris.
All six of these plays world-premiered at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company under the direction of that company's artistic director, Terrence J. Nolen. Last year Hollinger and Nolen both won that city's Barrymore Awards for the work they did on Opus. The fact that this Opus came easily to him surprises Hollinger, who was classically trained at Oberlin Conservatory and heading for a career as a violist when, at age 22, the notion of a lifetime of practice practice practice suddenly weighed like lead on him. He took a sharp turn into theatre at Villanova University, where he got his M.A. and is now an assistant professor of theatre. Only recently, after 20 years, did Hollinger pick up the instrument again and start playing with a quartet near his home in Wyncote, PA. One thing leading to another, Opus began pouring out of him like volcano lava.
"This play came very quickly," he admits. "I think part of the reason is it takes place in a contemporary world — one that I know well, one that I'm very passionate about — so I didn't have to, as I've done with some of my plays, do five or ten years of research on it.
"I like that this play followed Tooth and Claw, which took nine years from conception to production. I had to learn all sorts of biology and something about evolution and travel to Galapagos and do research on the various creatures there. It's got Spanish in it and Latin. Finally I thought, 'Okay. Let's go indoors. Four chairs, five people, a world that I know.'"
Four chairs and five people could be this play's synopsis: Days before a televised White House concert, the Lazara String Quartet fires its violist and replaces him with a young woman whose skill inspires the group to prepare a monster of a composition — Beethoven's Opus 131. Doubling the difficulty of the assignment is the fact that the heretofore all-male group has been invaded by somebody of a different gender and a different generation.
"In some ways, this is my most personal play," Hollinger allows. "The characters are closer to me, demographically. They're guys in their 40s, all in different domestic situations. One is a dad with two kids. I'm a dad with two kids. One is a violist. I was supposed to be a professional violist. Chamber music has been very good to me, and I finally felt like, 'Maybe I can actually write a chamber play about chamber musicians, composing a kind of music with the voices of the characters.' There are writers who are incredibly intricate with the rhythms of their work, and that's really important to me, too. In some of my plays — say, An Empty Plate — it's a very stylized language — heightened — it's not designed to sound like life. Opus is the opposite of that. Opus is designed to sound like people we meet all the time. I've worked my way to the present, to naturalism."
"All of Michael's work deals with rhythm and tone," interjects his conductor — er, director — Nolen. "Even when we are casting other plays, Michael will say, 'Hmmm, I think this character is a bass.' Sound and the musicality of the piece are very important to both of us."
So did Nolen "do a Doyle" — i.e., engage actors who could play musical instruments à la John Doyle's Sweeney Todd and Company?
No. "There's a way we have action and soundtrack together that's beautiful and precise. It tells the audience the actors are not playing. We hired a quartet from Philadelphia's Curtis School of Music to play the score, and the cellist came up afterwards and said, 'When you told me what you were going to do, I thought it would never work, but watching it — even though I could hear us playing — I totally assumed the actors were.' It's a combination of things. There's a choreographed, stylized approach that allows us to put the emphasis on the bowing. What we didn't know was how effective we would wind up being. Philadelphia is a hotbed of classical music."
In Hollinger's view, music is merely a means to The End — not the end itself. "It seems to me that, if it were just about a quartet, it would be a very limited world view," he reasons. "Virtually anything a performer says about music-making is of an ephemeral nature. And, of course, the level above that is that life is ephemeral and the notes we make decay. Life is what we make of the notes in the time that we are able to make them.
"The title is, y'know, Opus. It's about work, what we leave behind us when we're done."