Michael Hollinger, writer of the play, Opus, and professor of Theatre at Villanova, visited my class this past week to discuss Opus and the process of play writing.
Opus is a play about a classical string quartet and the complex relationship between creative and impulsive genius and pragmatic interpretation. It is written musically as if the musician’s are speaking as their instruments themselves and are a part of a piece of music. Set in modern day, the play also explores themes of sexuality, madness, and the ephemeral nature of life and art.
Hollinger himself is a musician and received a BA in viola performance. He later turned his focus to theatre and received his masters in theatre at Villanova. Thus, his play reflects certain personal interests and experiences.
“The characters are of my demographic and the play is contemporary,” he said. “It was a world I felt comfortable diving into, which may be why it didn’t take me very long to write the play.”
This background in music and theatre helped create the unique style of Opus. Hollinger said that he had some idea of the quartet music he wanted to be featured in the play, so he tried to shape the plot around the music at various points in the play.
When describing the process of playwriting, Hollinger said it was “a mix of architecture and archaeology.” The architecture was his personal planning and structuring of the play, and the archeology was the “digging” he had to do to research for the play.
“The architecture and archaeology need to inform each other,” he said. “Too much architecture can cause a play to die because of too much planning.”
He added that when giving stage directions, he aims to write as little as possible so everything he writes will be considered important to directors and will consequently be ignored at serious peril.
When asked about characters, Hollinger said character creation is as much an act of discovery as an act of creation.
“Sometimes what the characters say inform me about them,” he said.
Hollinger added that he identified with every character in Opus.
“That’s what’s great about playwriting-you have the possibility of fragmenting yourself and giving validity to everyone,” he said. “We are all a lot of people at once.”
One of the central conflicts among the characters in Opus is the decision to stick to the original score of the composer, or to interpret the piece for oneself and add or change certain parts of a song. Hollinger said that he thought a mix of both approaches is essential.
“There are talented musicians on both side of this debate,” he said. “I think ultimately the test is if the sound is effective and if it moves the audience.”