Pleasure is an opera of opposites: of tradition and post-modern realism; of life and death; of pain and pleasure. Mark Simpson’s dynamic piece at Opera North, with libretto Melanie Challenger, tells the story of Val (Lesley Garrett), a cleaner at a gay nightclub who helps the young, lost men who flock there. While one would expect the tragedy to focus upon homosexual relationships, instead the opera focuses on the love between a mother and son. Specifically, the passionate blend of love and hatred felt by Val and her son Nathan (Timothy Nelson) whose arrival at the club sparks a turbulent and violent night.
Operatic grandeur and majesty is juxtaposed with the brutality of Val’s despair and the struggles of the men who come to her.
While many of us have our own stories from nightclub toilets, none (hopefully) reach the scope and tragedy of Pleasure, where a mother is reunited with a son given up for adoption, a man falls in love, and another kills himself – all amongst a urinal and sink. To quote Simpson himself, it is a setting “never before featured on an opera stage” and it is here the brilliance of Pleasure lies. Operatic grandeur and majesty is juxtaposed with the brutality of Val’s despair and the struggles of the men who come to her. Setting the scene was Simpson’s stunning orchestra, whose position in view above the stage meant their part was given equal importance to those performing. Hearing Simpson’s music, it is difficult to believe Pleasure is his first opera. This emphasis on stagecraft is reflected in the abstract set design where the performers weave between giant LED letters spelling “Pleasure” that change colour with the mood. It beautifully reflects the operatic medium, wherein performers draw us in with raw emotion and lifelike acting whilst the realism of the performance is contrasted by the sung libretto.
In a talk following the show, Simpson declared “characters you empathise with and live with” are the most important part of an opera, and this is partly achieved. Lesley Garrett shone in the role of Val: an utterly believable, heart-wrenching performance where she portrayed both the plight of those who feel trapped in minimum wage conditions in an elitist society and the consequences of an abusive relationship. Larger-than-life Anna Fewmore (Steven Page) also had a huge impact with cleverly portrayed comedic interchange in and exposure of the conflicted LGBT community – both internally and externally. Anna’s “back stabbing lower class” background does not afford her the same freedom of expression as that of upper class Matthew (Nick Pritchard), a young man who frequents the club.
Lesley Garrett portrayed the plight of those both trapped in minimum wage conditions in an elitist society, and the consequences of enduring an abusive relationship.
However, the emotion of the piece is hindered at times by the acting direction. There was a clear desire to portray multiplicity, both of characters and plot – depicting not only Matthew’s love affair with Nathan, but also the struggle in society to redefine masculinity in a modern context. This was conveyed through utilising the different levels of the stage where Anna could frequently be seen getting ready in her drag outfit on one part of the stage while another sang. While this did convey the director’s intentions, it distracted the audience’s attention in an opera that was already fast paced enough to cause confusion. At several points, performers faced the back of the stage whilst singing which limited the power of the performance, dramatic intentions aside. Ultimately, the show seemed too short to allow full appreciation of Nathan and Val’s reunion and the tragedy of their past. Nonetheless, the brutal nature of abuse and heartbreak featured in Pleasure is expertly handled by the performers with sensitivity and grace that made the LGBT+ community more understandable and accessible without offending those for whom Pleasure is close to reality.
Whether the opera hitting so close to home is truly a bad thing is debatable. A barely contained passionate performance, combined with an emotional impact that personally affected the audience. One could argue such a tragedy hardly suits the name Pleasure, but this encapsulates Simpson’s opera perfectly. It is an opera caught in contrasts, celebrating the progressive nature of Opera North and modern society by its mere conception while also shedding light on the struggles of not only the LGBT community, but also all minorities in a patriarchal system. Challenger wanted to write an opera that would make someone “fall in love with opera for the first time” and, in my case, this was certainly achieved.