Tales of rock bands’ acrimonious breakups are the stuff of legend—think Smashing Pumpkins, The Doors, Talking Heads, Pink Floyd, and of course The Beatles. Michael Hollinger’s Opus, now in its Los Angeles premiere at the Fountain Theatre, makes it clear that the world of classical music is no less volatile—and perhaps even more so.

The Lazara String Quartet (named after a fictitious 17th Century violin maker) is auditioning violists to replace Dorian (Daniel Blinkoff), their recently fired violist, and a number of candidates seem almost right for the position. Then, fresh-faced Asian-American prodigy Grace (Jia Doughman) shows up and blows away the competition with her one-in-a-million virtuosity. Since the Lazara String Quartet (to be called LSQ from now on) are considered one of the world’s finest ensembles, it’s no wonder that first violinist Elliot (Christian Lebano), second violinist Alan (Cooper Thornton), and cellist Carl (Gregory G. Giles) react with incredulity when Grace asks for a week to decide. This rookie can’t possibly think that a job with the Pittsburgh Symphony compares to being annointed LSQ’s violist, can she?  After all, “the job satisfaction rates for orchestra players are lower than dentists,” and besides, how many times can a musician play Beethoven’s Ninth before going crazy?

It takes Grace but a few minutes to reconsider her initial refusal of LSQ’s offer, and soon she and the other musicians are hard at work preparing for an upcoming White House gig.

A rehearsal or two later, friction has already begun to emerge and fights to ensue, leaving Grace to wonder if she would have done better to stick with the relative mental and emotional stability which the Pittsburgh Symphony would seem to offer. There’s Elliot’s egomania, Alan’s obvious interest in the nubile newbie, and Carl’s reemerging health issues, all of which threaten to derail the group’s efforts to master that most difficult of Beethoven’s compositions, the Opus 131, in the week that remains before their White House command performance.

Flashbacks reveal that Elliot and Dorian have been lovers, torn apart by a combination of Dorian’s mental health issues, Elliot’s insistence that they remain closeted even to Alan and Carl, and the more dominant male’s refusal to let Dorian play lead violin, despite Elliot’s obvious awareness that his own talents can’t hold a candle to Dorian’s genius.

Will Grace stick with the group? Will the MIA Dorian turn up dead or alive? Will Carl’s ill health make any other considerations moot points? These are only a few of the questions that keep Fountain audiences on the edge of their seats throughout Opus’s lickety-split ninety minutes, that is when they’re not laughing at playwright Hollinger’s witty jokes or shedding a tear or two over Dorian’s heart-wrenching inner demons.

Director Simon Levy adds Opus to the string of hits he’s directed at the Fountain, most recently last year’s equally gripping Photograph 51, and neither his work nor the cast he has assembled could be any better.

As Ellot, Lebano gives a rich, three-dimensional performance that goes a long way toward humanizing a man whose cruel streak is a manifestation of an inferiority complex he does his best to mask with bravado. Thornton is equally fine as peacemaker Alan, LSQ’s “stable one”—that is until Grace’s presence begins to crack even his sangfroid.  A terrific Giles gives Carl an inner fire and gritty pluck in the face of potential personal tragedy.  The utterly enchanting Doughman makes an illustrious L.A. theater debut as Grace, a role she seems born to play, and watching the usually self-effacing 20something stand up to her twice-her-age quartet-mates provides some of Opus’s most satisfying moments.


Finally, there is Blinkoff, whose work with Antaeus and South Coast Repertory has proven him one of our finest and most versatile stage actors.  In Opus, he gives one of the year’s truly great performances as a man whose self-confidence and self-esteem have been nearly destroyed by a relationship every bit as toxic as the mental illness his doctors have yet to find the right drug cocktail to control.  Rarely have an actor’s eyes been enough to provoke tears, but Blinkoff’s do, revealing the depth of Dorian’s agony in a way that is, simply put, unforgettable.

Frederica Nascimento’s scenic design has the look of an abstract art work that appears made of the same wood as the gorgeous Lazara strings played by the members of LSQ.  Her set has been exquisitely lit by lighting designer Ken Booth.  Costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg clothes his cast in a bevy of outfits that reveal their ages, characters, and personal tastes. 

Music advisors Roy Tanabe and Larry Sonderling have assured the accuracy of Opus’s heady world as well as  the actors’ simulation of authentic violin, cello, and viola-playing. Sound designer Peter Bayne makes it seem as if the music coming out of the Fountain’s speaker system were actually emanating from the instruments on stage.  LSQ’s music is courtesy of the Vertigo String Quartet, who recorded it for Opus’s 2006 World Premiere in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Goar Galstyan is prop designer and Scott Tuomey. Opus is produced by Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor.

The Fountain has a history of long-running, multi-award-winning productions, and Opus looks to be no exception. Just as Photograph 51 made the life of a research scientist absolutely mesmerizing, so does Opus make the world of the classical musician every bit as spellbinding.  This is L.A. intimate theater at its brilliant best.

The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. www.FountainTheatre.com

–Steven Stanley
July 8, 2010
                                                                                 Photos: Ed Krieger


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