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Q&A with OPUS Playwright Michael Hollinger and Director Marcia Ferguson

Craig Schwartz
From a production of Michael Hollinger's OPUS from 2009

This Sunday, February 4th at Penn's Harold Prince Theatre, the world-renowned Daedalus Quartet performs Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 131 after a staged reading of Michael Hollinger’s award-winning play, Opus. WRTI's Debra Lew Harder spoke with playwright Michael Hollinger and Dr. Marcia Ferguson, who directs the play, about this unique production, and what the audience can expect.

DLH: What makes Opus a powerful testament to music?

Ferguson: The play is so magical is because of its musicality.  Michael refers to it as a score for actors’ voices…and it really is.  The minute and precise rendering of pauses, beats, intentional overlaps, and silences in the dialogue makes the reading exceptionally musical.  All good plays have great rhythm, but this is the first one I’ve seen where that rhythm is so intrinsic to character, dialogue, and dramatic action.

DLH:  Michael, you began your professional career in the arts as a violist. How did having that experience inform the writing of this play? Could a non-musician have understood the intricacies of quartet playing and of the music itself as authentically?

Hollinger: Most playwrights (including me) write plays about fields they don’t know intimately.  However, the fact that I’m a violist and spent many hours in rehearsal rooms arguing about crescendos and bowing certainly helped give these sections a level of detail that a non-musician might not have achieved.  

DLH: Why Opus 131? Could Opus have been written about any other Beethoven String Quartet?

Hollinger: Opus 131 is generally considered the “Everest” of string quartets.  I had worked on Beethoven’s Opus 133 with a string quartet one summer, and was at first inclined to use that piece; but I kept encountering string players with email addresses and license plates with “Opus131” in them, and realized I should go with that one.

DLH:  In the original Arden Theater production, the actors mimicked playing their instruments to a soundtrack recording by Curtis Institute students. They did it extremely convincingly—how difficult is that to bring off?

Hollinger: In full productions of the play, actors work with a musical consultant like dancers with a choreographer, practicing bowing patterns to the recorded score. (The left hand remains still; only the bow arm moves.)

DLH: What will be the impact of hearing Opus 131 performed by a world-renowned string quartet, after the audience has watched the play?

Hollinger: My hope is that, having heard musical passages in the play, the audience will have periodic moments of recognition when listening to the full quartet.  Most importantly, I hope they appreciate the monumental achievement that Beethoven’s Opus 131 represents.

DLH:  Finally, which event taking place on February 4th will have a more lasting impact in our lives—Opus or Super Bowl 52?

Hollinger: If all goes well, we should see some “SPRBWL52” email addresses and license plates in years to come…


Feb. 4, 3 pm, at Penn's Annenberg Center Live:  Hollinger’s acclaimed play Opus follows the life of a professional string quartet as they prepare for a performance of Beethoven’s late masterpiece, the String Quartet No. 14 in C# minor, Op. 131. Following a staged reading of Opus, Hollinger, Penn Theatre Arts Program Director Marcia Ferguson and the Daedalus Quartet consider the aesthetic and historical questions raised by the appearance of Beethoven’s works, some of the most uncompromising “absolute” music ever written, at the center of a theatrical work. The event concludes with a performance of Beethoven’s Opus 131 in its entirety. Tickets here.

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.