Hollinger's Opus has its world premere at the Arden Theatre, January 12- March 5
The Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia presents the world premiere of Michael Hollinger's Opus from January 12 through March 5. Directed by the Arden's Producing Director, Terrence J. Nolen, it marks the sixth collaboration between the director and playwright, in a long list of world premiere productions of Hollinger's work at the Arden. A co-production with City Theatre Company, the production moves to Pittsburgh from March 17 to April 9.
Opus tells the tale of a world-renowned string quartet as they rehearse Beethoven's Opus 131 in preparation for a televised performance at the White House. With only a few days to rehearse, tensions arise and personalities clash within the quartet as they confront the inspired yet ephemeral nature of their craft.
The mission of the Arden Theatre is "to bring to life the greatest stories told by the greatest storytellers of all time," and Michael Hollinger shares the great distinction with only Stephen Sondheim of being the Arden's most produced artist. Of this, Nolen says, "Michael creates worlds that are compelling, and he has a point of view that excites me. Our audiences love Michael's plays and now we have audience members who come to see their sixth Hollinger play. So not only do they get to experience the story and the play, but they also get to experience an expansion of Michael's work, which is something extraordinary." Of Nolen's direction, Hollinger says, "right from the start, Terry gets what is in the play. At the Arden, I know that when I write a play and I write 'beat,' that there is going to be a beat there. Terry is very devoted to utilizing what is in the play. Sometimes we'll discover that's the wrong thing and it needs to be something else, but it is never approximated. His love of the detail and the passion for that, is a wonderful thing for me. And while the point is to make something that's thrilling and wonderful and that moves people, that can only happen when you pay attention to detail. Terry likes to get things exactly right. And that's a thrilling thing."
The two men share a kind of shorthand, an easiness with the other, that can only come from years of working together. Hollinger states, "We discovered in our first play, we have a vigorous and rigorous relationship with each other's work. We don't have to spend a lot of time and energy being tactful. He doesn't take every suggestion I make, nor do I take every suggestion he makes. But we have a very open relationship that allows for the quick free-flowing of ideas."
Looking back on the collaboration between the two, beginning with An Empty Plate in the Café Du Grand Boeuf in 1994, it reads as a who's who list of the best of Philadelphia's actors and designers. Nolen says, "To think about the wealth of artists that have been involved in the six plays of Michael's that we've done here is astounding." Hollinger seconds, "I love Philadelphia actors; in my mind, they are second to none. Because so many have worked with each other, and Terry, and me before, we can also get down to work faster. We share a vocabulary, a history, and we don't have to spend a lot of time "dating" before getting down to business."
The cast of Opus includes two Philadelphia favorites, David Whalen and two-time Barrymore Award winner Greg Wood. Rounding out the cast is Douglas Rees, Patrick McNulty, and Pittsburgh's Erika Cuenca. While they each portray brilliant musicians in the play, the actors do not play their own instruments. Instead, they use stylized choreography to suggest the playing of instruments to recordings made by a quartet from the Curtis Institute of Music, with the help of sound designer Jorge Cousineau. Nolen explains, "We hired violin and celllo "coaches" who taught the actors how to deal with their instruments. This included everything from holding the instruments to tuning and bowing to reading music. Though we are very upfront that the actors are not playing, it was important to me that their connection to their instrument be very real."
Opus author Hollinger is actually a trained musician, turned playwright, and this play brings him back to his first passion of music. "It is a subject very close to my heart," he says, " the making of art, the making of music, the inter relationship of collaborative artists with each other." And while he explains that most of his plays have elements of music within them; up until now, he had yet to write a play about music. "With this play I wanted to experiment with the interplay of language in a consciously theatrical musical way and I frankly didn't know how I was going to do that when I originally had the idea for this play, years ago," he explains. "So once I started playing viola again, three years ago, I felt like I now was back in the world of music enough to open my heart to it."
Hollinger is currently an assistant professor at Villanova University, where he is an extremely well-liked playwriting teacher, often serving as a mentor for former students or remaining an eager ear for novice playwrights as they hone their craft. Playwriting students have shadowed him on productions in the past, extending their education outside of the classroom. "As a theatre practitioner, I think nothing is more valuable than bringing students into the mess of the work itself. Most art-making is messy and filled with uncertainty. I share my mess and uncertainty so my students will understand that the mess and uncertainty in their own processes and work are appropriate and not to be avoided."
Nolen, the recent Barrymore Award Winner for his direction of Sweeney Todd last year, will next direct Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Arden.
The set design of Opus is by James Kronzer, with costumes by Michael McAleers,
lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski and sound design by Jorge Cousineau.
Tickets for Opus may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215.922.1122, online at
www.ardentheatre.org, or by visiting the box office at 40 N. 2nd Street in Philadelphia.