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A Passion for Dead Guys

Michael Hollinger was a violist before he became a playwright. Apparently, he was very good — 22 years ago, Carnegie-Mellon felt compelled to offer him a free ride in its graduate program. He didn't want it. According to his official bio, Hollinger disliked rehearsal and despised orchestral work — antipathies that do not lend themselves to the viola life.

But Hollinger adored chamber music. That's from the official bio too, but you don't need to read it to know it. Opus is a love letter to chamber music, and it's packed with the kind of respect and deep affection that could come only from a true believer.

Opus covers a brief moment in the life of a celebrated string quartet. Its violist has been unceremoniously booted for being too crazy and demanding, and in just a few days, the remaining members must break in a replacement and prepare a performance for the president. The music the group has selected for the occasion is Beethoven's Opus 131 — one of those tear-soaked, restless, late-period pieces — and Beethoven's last great work.

The idea is simple, but the lives illuminated within the quartet's creative vortex are anything but. They're complex and strangely irreducible. Using an admirable economy of exposition, Opus deals in whole people with fully formed lives. Judging them is more than a little heart-wrenching, because the actors responsible for putting flesh on Hollinger's bones are extraordinarily keyed in to their characters' strengths and foibles. Even at their most flagrantly ugly, they evoke total sympathy.

First violinist Elliott (Jeff Talbot) is a fragile little god, maintaining a white-knuckled grip on the reins of both the quartet and his own troubled life. He talks fast and smart, confident in the way that bitter, intellectual old queens can be confident — the knowing tone pushed hard to the front, to distract from the nervous tremor that never quite leaves the back of the throat. He lives like the little mermaid danced, and he's darkly fascinating — watching the guy try to keep his cool is like watching a body decompose.

It's clear that he's the man responsible for kicking Dorian (Craig Wroe), the old violist, from the quartet. Dorian should have been the first violinist all along — he was the musical visionary of the group, all hot passion and jagged edges to Elliott's refinement and moderation. (I picture Dorian as a male Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, but you'll will bring your own associations.) He never got the gig, because he was a fanatic: Where the quartet had talent, Dorian demanded genius. When we meet him, Dorian is emotionally drained from his expulsion and more than a little imbalanced. He speaks about his music in metaphysical terms, with a thousand-mile stare and a lilting baritone. I was reminded of a slower, lower Allen Ginsberg.

He's a big presence. Even in his absence, his personality informs the quartet's rehearsals. As we're offered small glimpses into the musicians' existence, only Dorian's idealism seems like an adequate response to the insane demands of both the quartet's life and Beethoven's music. Opus' conflict arises there, in the attempt to reconcile the music's perfection with its players' moral and physical failures.

Most of the action in Opus centers on the struggle to separate the personal from the professional, the art from the act, and to suss out where the music gets its magic. Professionalism is at war with creativity, security is at war with danger, and whichever members of the quartet happen to embody those opposing qualities are at war with one another. Opus' more peaceable characters — Alan (Joe Kimble), Carl (Jim Shankman), and Dorian's replacement, Grace (Natasha Sherritt) — are very much pawns in these conflicts. They are clobbered mercilessly by circumstance, and everybody gets bloodied sooner or later. The idea seems to be that the pleasures of art are purchased with the pain of living. This is not exactly a new idea, but Hollinger explores it as gracefully as anybody since Puccini tossed off "Vissi d'arte."

Let's make this perfectly clear, though: You are, at this moment, reading a story about a play about people getting together and trying to perfect a piece of music by a dead guy. I found this to be unbelievably exciting, but I can foresee a situation where some decent, forward-thinking folks might not. String quartets are not a hot topic of discussion right now, even among the smart people of the world.

That's OK. You probably don't give a shit about string quartets for some of the same reasons that Michael Hollinger gave Carnegie-Mellon the finger all those years ago. There is a vast, exciting wealth of experience to be gained in the world beyond the theater and the conservatory, and getting all worked up about difficult music by 19th-century misanthropes can seem quaintly beside the point.

And it is, of course. But it is eminently worthwhile to watch Opus' five actors treat Beethoven's String Quartet in C# Minor like it's a thing worth living for, because Hollinger is tuned in to a much higher, finer truth. As his characters' lives become bound up in their music and as their pain becomes ever-more intractable, one gets the queer feeling that they are not living for this music. It starts to seem that the music is living for them.

That's a true and awesome thing about music (or theater... or whatever). When it's good and when sufficient amounts of love and need get pumped in, the stakes of art can be exactly as high as a player — or a listener — wants them to be. In its very best moments, good art can actually sustain a life and make some sense out of it. It's clear that Beethoven gave Michael Hollinger a lot of those moments. Opus gives us a few more.

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Brandon K. Thorp