Is art more important than people? Is it more important than life? Do the products of human creativity supercede their creators? Is life pointless without the expression of human skill or imagination? Oscar Wilde held that life takes its value from contributing to art. In fact, in his dialogue The Decay of Lying, the character Vivian goes so far as to assert that "[t]he only beautiful things...are the things that do not concern us." Michael Hollinger's play Opus embodies these very questions, and more. And Hollinger even has the nerve to attempt answers.
Written by Michael Hollinger
Directed by Jason W. Gerace
At Redtwist Theatre in Chicago
A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on Jan. 14, 2012, and an essay on stubbornness.
This review contains spoilers.
Itself structured like a piece of music, Opus tells the story of a classical string quartet struggling to achieve musical harmony despite interpersonal disharmony. The renowned Lazara Quartet, their fame soaring, suddenly has to replace one of its members, Dorian, whose emotional volatility requires medication but whose musical percipience, through nagging, has propeled the group to the eminence it enjoys as a chamber ensemble. They've fired Dorian because he "stole" a very valuable Lazara violin that had been donated to the Quartet, in large part because of his decaying relationship with his partner, Elliot, who is the group's first violinist and de facto vituperator. To replace Dorian, the three remaining members of the group hire Grace, a highly talented musician who's nevertheless young, inexperienced, and unsure about her career path. Grace dazzles them all at her audition: not only Elliot, but also Carl, the cellist, who's facing a recurrence of his cancer, and Alan, the other violinist, who's jejune in matters of the heart and whom Grace bewitches with her charm. As the Quartet prepares for an upcoming command performance at the White House, to be televised, the tension and anxiety grow, culminating in a smashing success and a shocking revelation: behind the scenes, Dorian has proposed to Carl that the group re-hire him, fire Elliot, and retain Grace. An altercation ensues, beginning when Carl, Alan, and Grace agree to Dorian's proposal, continuing as they fight with Elliot about ownership of the Lazara violin, and finally ending when Carl grabs the violin in a fit of anger and smashes it. His colleagues, he cries, have lost their "perspective".
I begin with the premise that performance is as much an art as is composition. Yes, this premise is debatable, but not here. In this story, much of the struggle leading up to the performance at the White House is about risking their reputation and their future on the Beethoven Op. 131 (String Quartet No. 14 in C# minor), one of his "late" quartets, which many musicians rank among the greatest compositions of all time, a nearly ineffable piece of music. In agreement with that appraisal, our five protagonists in this play fear and respect the piece for its technical and emotional difficulty. And as we watch them confront personal demons and rebound from indignities, the Op. 131 comes to symbolize the emergence of harmony from disharmony, to represent the zenith of their hard work, both personally and professionally. Though it's hard to tell whether the music functions as therapy for these five people or whether it's a compelling end unto itself, Hollinger favors the former inference when Carl smashes the Lazara. Brian Parry, who played Carl, brought the necessary gravitas to a role that serves as the play's thematic anchor. I can't, however, say that his acting was smooth throughout, especially after Carl learned his cancer had returned. His colleagues inquired about the test results, but his refusal to talk about it and confirm their suspicions sounded over-rehearsed. Consequently, it damaged the moment and diminished its genuineness.
But Carl appreciates Dorian's musically fussy ways and advocates for his high artistic standards. Therefore, giving Carl the two roles of excellence-advocate and perspective-keeper underscores the inexorable tension between technique and sensibility, between practicality and ideality, and, ultimately, between art and life. Early on in the story, Carl is unhappy compromising musical quality for the sake of peace among his colleagues, but by the time he and Dorian announce their alliance, directly after the White House performance, that very tension is viciously tearing at him from within. Facing his own mortality and having to re-evaluate his priorities, while being pulled into the growing quarrel in the room over his and Dorian's disclosure, his only relief comes in the form of an emotional explosion that destroys the Quartet's eponymous violin. This is the great irony in the play -- that Carl destroys the very symbol of his purpose as a musician in order to prove its importance. His demand for "perspective" doesn't presuppose a hierarchy of values; in other words, he's not saying that his colleagues matter more than the music, or the music more than his colleagues. But he does demand that everyone pause to reset the ensemble's frame of reference.
Firing Elliott and re-hiring Dorian shoves the Quartet closer to musical excellence. And this decision by the group speaks volumes about their values, individually and collectively. The quality of their subsequent performances, or so they expect, will rise markedly, bringing them deeper musical satisfaction and greater professional prestige, though their heated exchanges focus more on the former than the latter. All group members, except Elliott, of course, consider the music more important than Elliott's continued membership. For the sake of musical excellence, they're willing to tolerate Dorian's volatility, to jettison Elliott's loyalty, to put Elliott in an awkward position professionally, and to gamble their current momentum. Moreover, Alan unabashedly tells Elliott, to his face, that Elliott doesn't play well enough for the ensemble to suffer his "unpredictability". Having the group's most relaxed member deliver this blow made it very effective. John Ferrick brought to this role a coolness that released Alan's live-and-let-live attitude, but that made him somewhat eerie in his detachment. Because of conflicting signals, it was never clear whether Ferrick's Alan was capable of love, or empathy, or whether he even had a conscience.
It becomes reasonable to wonder how far the other four would go for the sake of their art. But just asking that question raises a paradox. If we elevate art above individuals, then what's the purpose of art? Whom does the artist intend to move, motivate, or provoke? For whom does the art carry out its function of abstracting some truth or question about life? Tolstoy, who saw the purpose of art as being the unification of humanity, would shudder at these questions and the posture they represent; he even dismissed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as "bad art" because it fails to "unite all men in one common feeling". Would that I could eavesdrop on a conversation between Wilde and Tolstoy about Opus, if for no other reason than to learn how to respond properly to the roar of the MGM lion.
Although my own answer to these questions, I fear, wouldn't win me a place in the Philanthropes' Hall of Fame, I do know that the ephemerality of performance escalates the urgency. Alan himself, at the end, waxes poetic by telling us all that their quartet should die in the middle of a rest while playing Op. 59, No. 1, in the Concertgebouw. Grace, played by Emily Tate, the only member of this pentad of characters who isn't experienced enough to have become jaded, softens the proceedings with her natural gentleness, some of which comes from an irritating but understandable indecisiveness. In the debate, Grace's enthusiasm for making good music is tempered by a legitimate concern for practicality, in particular, whether to stay with the Quartet or accept a job offer from an orchestra, somewhat balancing the less-compromising zeal of Carl and Dorian. Grace's shillyshallying grates the nerves, and Tate played it well against the forcefulness of her character's male colleagues. Michael Sherwin, who played Elliott, apparently noticed that every tantrum in this play, whether over musical excellence, artistic fidelity, or practical necessity, was fueled by both vision and ego, and that the confidence necessary to advance a vision can lose its "perspective" and froth up into a vehemence that's hard to distinguish from egomania. And the inability to make even larger critical distinctions, such as that between art and life, can create delusions.
Sherwin's Elliott was appropriately tetchy -- grumbling, indignant, and petulant. Nevertheless, despite being dangerously close to one-dimensionality, this Elliott generated a little sympathy by letting a tiny ray of warmth penetrate the fog he'd created out of self-pity. Consequently, the mild cruelty of Paul Dunckel's Dorian seemed more unfair than it might have been otherwise. But Dunckel convinced me of Dorian's involuntary narcissism, and that he wanted desperately to control his emotions without deadening them. He wanted to restore and improve his relationship with Elliott, without surrendering the joy he felt from making music. But he was a man whose competing passions were ultimately irreconcilable. And he eventually made his choice. Or it was made for him.
To follow a vision means to believe oneself right, a conceit that requires stubbornness that only an ego can supply. We may cite Ars gratia artis as a philosophical stance, but in the presence of ego, it's an unattainable ideal. Until and unless machines take over our thinking -- on our behalf, of course, and only for our own "liberation" -- there is, and will be, no such thing as ego-free music, ego-free science, or ego-free poetry. It goes without saying that the performance of ephemeral art satisfies the ego only briefly, because, as we learn in this play, once the music stops, the memory is all that remains.