Arnold Steinhardt knows all about the hothouse atmosphere of a classical string quartet. For 45 years, he was first violin in the Guarneri String Quartet, one of the most honored ensembles of its time. So when Steinhardt went to see a play about the inner workings of a quartet, Opus by Michael Hollinger, his reaction was bound to be interesting.
"The play was unquestionably gripping, yet the evening left me feeling slightly uncomfortable,'' Steinhardt recently wrote on his blog, Fiddler's Beat (arnoldsteinhardt.com). "For 90 minutes, I had witnessed the first violinist's love affair with the violist, the violist's eventual firing and subsequent disappearance, the beginning of yet another relationship with the newly arrived violist, and an act (that will go unnamed) of shocking violence.''
At first, Steinhardt was inclined to write Opus off as just another overwrought drama. But then he realized Hollinger was onto something significant.
"Haydn's disturbingly beautiful The Seven Last Words, Mozart's other-worldly fantasy in the Dissonant, Beethoven's tempestuous daring in the Great Fugue and Schubert's desperate melancholy in Death and the Maiden all demand intense work, great artistry and deft social skills,'' he wrote. "When four string players sit down to grapple with these monumental string quartets, things don't necessarily go smoothly. While the Guarneris have had little more than very heated discussions at times, other quartets have experienced incompatibility, dismissal, affairs, divorce, litigation, nervous breakdowns and even suicide.''
Opus, which opens Friday at American Stage, is about the intense relationships within the fictional Lazara Quartet, which is going through a crisis as one of its founders, the viola player, has been kicked out of the group. Now the remaining members, men in their 40s, are replacing him with a young woman.
"The play mirrors most aspects of being any kind of an artist and being a member of a group or ensemble,'' said Steve Garland, who plays the exiled viola player. The actor found the differences between how musicians and theater people relate to each other in rehearsal fascinating.
"How actors relate to each other is a completely different world,'' Garland said. "Actors will be more passive — sometimes, passive aggressive, unfortunately — and they'll be a lot nicer about trying to be diplomatic. Musicians, though, are exceedingly objective. When somebody is playing like s---, they call them out on it.''
"There's a great quote in the show,'' said Nick White, a composer and actor who is musical adviser on the production. "Elliot (the first violin) says that if we sat around patting ourselves on the back all the time, we'd never get any work done.''
The difference between a string quartet and a play is that the quartet is democratic. "Everyone in a quartet has their say,'' White said. "Theater is a dictatorship; a director has the last word on everything.''
Playwright Hollinger started out as a classical musician himself, getting a bachelor's degree in viola performance at the Oberlin Conservatory before switching to theater. He has seven full-length plays to his credit, but Opus, premiered in 2006, was his first to be set in the music world that he knows so well.
"In some ways, this is my most personal play," Hollinger told playbill.com. "The characters are closer to me, demographically. They're guys in their 40s, all in different domestic situations. One is a dad with two kids. I'm a dad with two kids. One is a violist. I was supposed to be a professional violist. Chamber music has been very good to me, and I finally felt like, 'Maybe I can actually write a chamber play about chamber musicians, composing a kind of music with the voices of the characters.' ''
Hollinger has cited a book by Steinhardt about the Guarneri Quartet, Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony, as a helpful resource in creating his fictional ensemble. There's also a DVD on the group, High Fidelity: Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet, which White showed to the American Stage cast.
Beethoven's Op. 131 string quartet is the elusive piece for the Lazara Quartet, whose members argue passionately about its interpretation as they prepare for a concert at the White House. When the American Stage cast assembled for its rehearsals, White gave everyone a recording of music in the show, including a performance of Beethoven's late quartet by the Alban Berg Quartet.
"It's quite possibly the greatest quartet ever written. Hollinger in his script says it's the greatest,'' said Garland.
"It's so traumatic, and so dark, and so strange, '' White said.
Garland thinks that theatergoers will be surprised at how dramatic the trials and tribulations of a string quartet can be.
"People think it's cozy all the time, and it's not,'' he said. "Tempers flare in any kind of group situation. And classical music doesn't mean a bunch of stuffed shirts playing dusty music. These people are real.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.