Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: APRIL 3, 2009
“Opus” centers on a string quartet, and it plays like a chamber ensemble piece: brisk, bright, harmonious, collaborative and immensely satisfying.
The play begins, aptly enough, with a tuneup . The ensuing performance is fraught with emotional crescendos, concord and dissonance, superb synchrony and a crashing, climactic finale.
The 2006 drama marks a return to the early passion of violist-turned-playwright Michael Hollinger, who creates a fictional Grammy Award-winning quartet of international renown. Their violist has recently been canned, and now he’s disappeared. They’ve just added a woman to the mix for the first time, and they only have five days to rehearse Beethoven’s punishingly difficult “Opus 131,’ before a performance at the White House, for a President none of them voted for.
In flashbacks, we get to see them in their heyday, making a cocky documentary about their lives and work, their wit and incredible synergy. But that was then. Now, Dorian is missing, Elliot is cranky, Carl is sick and Alan is attracted to Grace, who’s more than a little ambivalent and intimidated by the whole group. We watch the painstaking rehearsal process, we observe how much a musical collective is like a marriage, including, in this case, a sexual element.
It’s a thrilling peek behind the curtain of a refined and urbane pursuit that’s seething with colliding egos and personalities, conflict and power plays, relentless attention to detail, striving for perfection, and coming unstrung, all in service of the music. Within the multiple layers of character and plot, we witness artists at work, and we’re shown the difference between technical proficiency and visionary genius.
At the Old Globe, Kyle Donnelly, head of the acting program at UC San Diego, is at the helm, bringing enormous wit, warmth and energy to the production. She’s marshaled an outstanding ensemble, whose well-timed, well-tuned performances are pitch-perfect. From the acidic, autocratic first violinist to the emotionally unstable but brilliant ex-violist and the mousy, but eager new one; from the schleppy , quippy second violinist to the seemingly placid, peacemaking cellist, all the tonal nuances are there – for a fine quartet and a compelling drama.
And then, of course, there’s the music, all pre-recorded by a real string quartet, but the way the players mime the use of their instruments and discuss the shading and gradations of the compositions, we almost believe they’re making those beautiful sounds, touching our hearts with Bach, Beethoven and Bartok. The clever dialogue is a series of duets, trios and contrapuntal interactions. “Opus,” an ingenious study in both musical and group dynamics, is given a stunning, riveting performance.
If you have an ear for music or an eye for terrific theater, this is one show that will satisfy all your senses.
The Old Globe production of “Opus” runs through April 26 in the auditorium of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park .
©2009 PAT LAUNER