Michael Hollinger, who graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, knows exactly what he's writing about in Opus, the story of the fictive Lazara Quartet, a chamber music group as universally lauded as the Boulder-based Takacs, and his love of music gives this piece radiant life. As the play opens, Grace, a young woman fresh out of conservatory, is auditioning for the group. Her brilliance outweighs her inexperience, and she's offered the job. Still, she hesitates — and it turns out her hesitation is prescient. Lazara has been commissioned to perform at the White House in the very near future: "In six days, Lazara rises from the dead," she's told. Not only that, but the group is in a dangerous state of flux. We learn exactly how and why in flashbacks and monologues, the latter delivered by the musicians to an invisible future documentarian.
Chamber ensembles achieve harmonies so exquisite that it's hard to imagine squabbling, rage or pettiness among the members, but relationships within Lazara have been stormy for some time. Although all decisions are supposedly reached consensually, first violinist Elliot is a dominant and manipulative figure, a kind of musical Rahm Emanuel: caustic, temperamental and often irrational. The violist whom Grace is replacing is Dorian, Elliot's longtime lover, a man who, when he plays Mozart, seems to be channeling the composer and bringing the music into being for the first time. The Lazara Quartet is named for an eighteenth-century violin maker, the fictional counterpart of a Stradivari or Guarneri, and Dorian had earlier persuaded a benefactor to part with two Lazara instruments: a violin and viola, made from the same tree. But Dorian is as unstable as he is gifted, and despite their personal intimacy, Elliot fires him. As Alan, the quizzical peacemaker of the quartet, explains to Grace, being led by a Joan of Arc-like visionary may be inspiring, "but when you're sitting down to play a sold-out concert in Carnegie Hall...do you really want to wonder if tonight that person's talking to dead people?" Finally, there's cellist Carl, a practical, good-natured family man facing a health crisis.
In some ways, Opus itself feels like music — and strains of Bartók, Beethoven and even the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" buoy the evening. The dialogue feels right and true, and the rhythms are perfect. The roles of all five musicians are equally balanced and, as in a musical group, each makes a specific contribution, taking focus, falling back, engaging or disengaging with the theme. Curious director Chip Walton has done the script proud. William Hahn's performance as Dorian is the evening's stunner, richly embodying the man's passion and otherworldliness, and revealing how inextricably music and human love are intertwined in his mind. In very different ways, the three other men are equally strong: Josh Robinson gives Elliot just the right amount of strut and hysteria; David Russell communicates both Alan's intelligence and his essential good nature; Erik Sandvold's Carl is bluff and solid —until his entire world falls apart. Like her character, Grace, Kari Delany seems a little less confident than her male counterparts, over-communicating early nervousness with high hunched shoulders and childishly turned-in toes. But she becomes smoother and more convincing over time. And Markas Henry's set, aided by Richard Devin's lighting, is a model of warmth and elegance.
Unfortunately, the play concludes with a splutter of over-dramatic plot points that seem at odds with its core exploration of the creative process and the way that flawed, egotistical, insecure human beings can come together to make transcendent music. There's a profound theme here of time, mutability and the impermanence of art—particularly music, which barely comes into being in performance before it vanishes. This is why Lazara's musicians are determined to play Beethoven's "Opus 131," the one piece needed to complete their recording of the composer's quartets. It underlies the evocation of Mozart, who lives again in Dorian's musicianship, the veneration of precious instruments from the hand of a long-dead maker, and Carl's bitter awareness of his own mortality.