Sunday, September 16, 2007

Opera: Grand and Soapy

Last night, Saturday, Ellie and I indulged in an evening of arias from grand opera at the Laguna Beach "Pageant of the Masters" outdoor amphitheater. The night before, Friday, we had watched the first episode of "Tell Me You Love Me," the new drama series on HBO television. Same theme: sex. Different eras, different media, different modes...

It was good to be out under the stars with friends and community. A good audience, a good crowd. It was good to feel cool, cold, even, as the evening lengthened, after the summer heat waves, which have seemed especially oppressive this year. It was good to be in the post-tourist season. And good to be regaled with the awesome reaches of the human voice, and share in the awesome range of human emotion. Passion is a rare quality in that it embraces the extremes of light and dark, the heights of ecstasy and the depths of grief. It's the human soul's most extravagant expression of the most basic of all drives (with the possible exception of material sustenance): human sexuality.

Because what else is this bloviating all about? Desire, possession, rejection, despair. Expressed in the close-to-heavenly sounds of operatic aria, it does--to use the word my friend used after the performance--"transport." It takes us to a place where feeling is untrammelled by the wonderfully absurd, inherent clumsiness of the mating of two human beings, or by the inadequacies of language. The soul soars in response to the voices, and in response to the ancient music of desire within ourselves. The aria gives us that "tune beyond us, yet ourselves" of which Wallace Stevens wrote in "The Man with the Blue Guitar."

Ah, yes. But I found myself missing some important part of the grandeur of grand opera, in an evening of arias strung together for no other purpose than the aesthetic one. I missed the grand scenes, the outrageous narrative, the over-the-top staging. I'm honestly no great opera buff, and my knowledge of opera music is limited at best. Those moments when I have most enjoyed it have been those when I am swept up in the story-line, "operatic" though it may be, and overwhelmed by the sheer theatricality of it all. The songs are, well, a part of it. The company, last night, did what they could to make up for this missing context with glorious costumes, lighting, rudimentary sets--but I confess I became just a wee bit bored. The songs were not enough, for me, in themselves, strung together like glittering beads on a necklace. And I noticed, not for the first time, about myself, that my sensibility responds more to words and narrative form than it does to music. Still, a truly lovely evening.

"Tell Me You Love Me," by contrast, was almost the dead opposite. Sex without the splendor, and without the arias. Sex, in a word, as most of us come to know it, the grubbier, more insecurity-fraught business of getting our needs met and trying at the same time to meet our partner's. That, and dodging the mines and booby traps of tolerable relationship. As such, this drama--well, this soap "opera"--comes as close as you can get to a reality show. For good reason, surely: the ratings. (My guess--confirmed by a quick Google on the side--is that the term "soap opera" derives from its need to literally sell soap.)

Of its genre, though, I'd have to say that the first episode of "Tell Me You Love Me" was very good. Very good indeed. The drama follows three couples at different stages of relationship: the young, the "passionate," the not-yet-married, simply ravenous for the immediate satisfaction of mutual physical invasion; the older, as yet childless couple struggling with infertility--hers? his?--and the transformation of sex into a different, more clinical-technological process, with potentially disastrous effects on the pleasures involved; and the third, more advanced, with young children whose presence makes such demands on the resources of time, affection, and sheer physical capacity that the sexual drive gets shoved aside or satisfied in moments of solitary, joyless desperation. (A masturbation scene, extraordinarily well done...)

The strong point here is that no one is to blame. No good guys, no bad guys. The couples clearly love each other. They just manage to mess things up, as the rest of us do, in the daily balancing act between love and its ultimate physical manifestation, sex. And the sex, like the love, is problematic--though the protagonists insist (don't we all?) that everything in the bedroom is just "fine." They are more apt to fake a sense of satisfaction than to admit to anything more damaging to the ever-vulnerable ego. The drama works well, too, in its frank depictions of sexual acts, which are real, explicit, not coy, a little clumsy (the word comes back: is this just me??!!) always caught somewhere between the sublime and the absurd and, as sex tends to be, sometimes blissful, erotic, sometimes simply mundane.

Well, you may have guessed that I enjoyed this show immensely. I intend to come back to it this very evening, for the next episode. You might say I'm hooked. Next I'll have to figure out what all this has to do with the Buddha.

Happy Sunday, everyone. What's left of it...

1 comment:

thailandchani said...

Must be an interesting show on HBO. I'll look forward to hearing more observations from you about it. :)