In 2006 Mark Simpson became the first person ever to win both Young Musician and Young Composer of the Year at the same time. He is now a well-established composer, but Pleasure, a co-production between Aldeburgh Music, Opera North and The Royal Opera, represents his first venture into opera. The piece premiered in Leeds in April, and now comes to London for the very first time.
Pleasure is set in an eponymous gay nightclub, or rather its toilets, and centres on the female attendant Val, in whom the men frequently confide. She was once a beautiful young thing to whom both men and women flocked, but now, with her faded looks, this is the only place in which she finds herself loved, respected and, above all, needed.
In this way, the opera, and Melanie Challenger’s libretto in particular, expose us to three realms. The first is the outside world of reality, misery and pain. The second is the club of fantasy and escape where dreams are realised. This realm is explored by the drag queen performer, Anna Fewmore, who in a series of ‘cabaret arias’ explains that this is the place to be not the person you really are, but the person you wish to seem. The third realm is the toilets, which constitute a place ‘beyond’ the dream where people can almost look upon themselves with a sense of detachment. Val, however, bypasses the central realm, with her outside world being mundane and the toilets being the place where she really lives.
Leslie Travers’ set is highly atmospheric, with glistening stringed curtains surrounding the stage, and huge letters standing in the centre that spell out ‘pleasure’ as they light up. The orchestra is situated on a balcony above the stage, which represents the club itself where Anna Fewmore puts on her performances. The fact that the toilets occupy the central area, however, with various toiletries standing on the letters, tells us what this opera is really about. In fact, in this context the backyard is more important than the club itself, with a rubbish bin with ‘pleasure’ ironically painted on it standing in contrast to the bright lights.
Simpson’s score, performed here by Manchester-based contemporary ensemble Psappha and conducted by Nicholas Kok, is dark and atmospheric. The wind and brass produce deep strains, while the strings provide a haunting momentum. Although the music is not minimalist certain sections carry an air of that style, with the resulting hypnotic effect also feeling fairly similar. The piece is generally brooding in tone, and while there is some variation, even the moments of quietude feel unrelenting in their own way.
There is a twist in the plot that it would be a shame to give away, but, as well as aiding the drama and introducing a degree of narrative thrust, it sheds more light on the characters and the issues being explored. It means that the searches of several characters become tangible rather than simply metaphorical, and it also helps to reveal the priorities of certain people. Although it does not represent her final decision, one of Val’s actions does suggest that she places her belonging in this place above anything, or anyone, in the world. Similarly, Anna Fewmore has a specific (and unselfish) reason for trying to force two young lovers, Nathan and Matthew, apart. When, however, she fobs them off with the excuse that their love cannot be because they will never enjoy together in the outside world what they do in here, she may still be uttering a certain truth.
Timothy Nelson and Nick Pritchard, both making Royal Opera debuts, are splendid as Nathan and Matthew respectively, while Steven Page is a class act as Anna Fewmore. It is, however, Lesley Garrett as Val who stands out. Like Billy Budd, Pleasure begins and ends with soliloquies, and Garrett renders these with a strong yet sensitive voice that, in its own understated way, seems to proclaim the despair of the world.
Pleasure will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now at 10.00pm on 11 June.