Recently I saw the play Opus by Michael Hollinger and had some thoughts.

It's a view into the lives of four members of a traditional string quartet, i.e. playing two violins, a cello and viola. The play, by the way, is written by a former violist – who else? – and one gets the impression the play knows its subject well.

Without giving too much away, the play opens with a vacancy in the group and a young lady, Grace, auditioning for the viola part. This is the usual very useful ploy by the playwright for as the characters need to find out about one another, we find out about them too. Apparently this is no average quartet, but quite a famous one, and one which like the Guarneri takes its name from a famous instrumentmaker. Thus it's not a surprise, and tension is added, when it is revealed that the group is shortly to perform at the White House.

The play was an enjoyable look into the private lives and relationships of the quartet, plus an expelled former member. Music fans will love the discussions of the various pieces, particularly the late Beethoven quartets and issues around them, though it's not necessary to know much about this to enjoy the play. It does sort of make me want to go and listen to those quartets though.

By the way, the actors do not actually play the music one often hears during the play. Instead they mime it, first in darkness, and then the light slowly comes up so that we can become accustomed gradually. The viewer is never fooled by this, but after a while it ceases to take attention away from what else is going on.

Also fun are the way that they critique one another as they work to get ready for the big performance. Exactly how this behind the scenes development goes is a mystery revealed for non-musicians in the audience. Then there are the emotional personalities and relationships which for the most part ring true and meaningful, all thrown against the backdrop of a quartet's peripatetic life on the road and all the challenges that that entails.

On the other hand, my friend May commented that in each case the problem each character faces is somewhat trite. Combining work and love, infidelity, cancer, finding your voice – these are not new issues and they are not made all that much different by the circumstances in which the characters find themselves. Probably too there was more opportunity for unique humor in the juxtaposition between music and such problems, and there was some, but the play could have stood more.

I also found a the play a bit flabby at times. Particualy in the first act there were unnecessary lines and some obvious remarks that just went on too long. Attention wavered. Seems it just needed to be crisper and tighter.

At the same time, I also found the play too short. Normally in a play my feeling is that we should come to a cadence, that the characters and situation, however much they have changed and grown, should reach a new stability. Certainly this is Shakespeare's view. But here it seems the last act was just left off. By the end, Grace has yet to really find her voice, nor do we know whether or not she is headed for a romantic relationship. The cancer situation remains unresolved. Another character gets some devastating news and we are left wondering what his next chapter will be. Etc. The play clocks in at only ninety-six minutes so it seems that time would not be an object if it were extended, especially if the first part were shortened. Perhaps the author will take another look one day.

Would I recommend this? On the whole, yes, but mildly.

You may also like to consult some of newspaper reviews of this play:

In addition, back in the eighties I saw a movie documentary on a quartet that had some of the same flavor. It may still be available on video somewhere: Basileus Quartet