Opera as an art form is often associated with a certain degree of distance from the modern cultural landscape, as an experience enjoyed by a very small section of modern society. So when I heard that Mark Simpson’s new chamber opera Pleasure is set in the hedonistic world of a gay nightclub in the north of England, I expected the tension between the setting of his piece and the history of the art form to be at the front of his mind. The reality was quite the contrary. “What we’re trying to do is get back to traditional theatre” he makes clear, and emphasises “what…I think is actually the essence of opera: great music, great story, a dramatic narrative that you want to be involved in” and “empathy with the characters”. The opera then, Simpson clarifies, is not about modern club culture, but rather emerged out of “the creative potential” that Simpson saw in what he describes as “quite a mad world of young intoxicated youths lost in a sea of sex and sweat and dance.” Instead, what Simpson hopes the contemporary setting provides is what he describes as “a duality” between the modern context that people can relate to, and the substance that draws from traditional forms.
At only 27 years old, Mark Simpson has been successfully composing music for over a decade, having won both the BBC Young Musician and BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year awards in 2006. Pleasure, he says, is a story that he has been desperate to tell since he was 18 years old. “It was inspired by my teenage and early twenties years going out clubbing in Liverpool,” Simpson tells me. In fact, he explains, it emerged out of one night spent talking to a toilet attendant at a club. The way everyone seemed to treat this woman as a mother figure lead Simpson to question “whether she might know things about people that other people might not think she did”.
Pleasure is the story of Val, a toilet attendant modelled upon the woman that Simpson met that night, who works in a gay club that encapsulates the mad world that Simpson found inspiration in. Val plays the role of confidante and a mother figure to the distressed patrons of the club, presided over by the extravagant drag queen Anna Fewmore. Simpson believes that this world and its relentless search for pleasure reveals a darkness that the composer figures through traditional operatic themes of passion and revenge. The world of drink, dancing, and drag queens is Simpson’s chosen setting to recontextualise the ideas examined by a form of theatre that is hundreds of years old, and has been brought to life by extensive collaborative work. “My love of opera” explains Simpson, “came from wanting to put something on stage, but particularly this story. I was 18 when I came up with it,” he continues. “I didn’t really know much about opera then.” Simpson sustained an interest in bringing this story to life since the idea first came to him almost a decade ago, and to hear him describe it is to understand his passion for this artistic project. “The last eight years have been a search for something which would be appropriate” for the story. “I’ve just been dying to do it. It’s been a kind of learning curve for me” he continues “because it’s the first time I’ve done this kind of project, to put a kind of narrative story, sung on stage.”
Key to developing the narrative dimension to Pleasure was the poet, and a close collaborator of Simpson’s, Melanie Challenger. Challenger is a poet whom Simpson met after he composed a piece of music based on one of her poems. “It would have been impossible for me to do this project without her” emphasises Simpson. “Because she writes the text, that makes my music stand out, but we also have a kind of intellectual relationship, we guide each other… so we can see where we’re both going.” This process, explains Simpson, allows him to create a piece of art that functions as a whole, where the words and music and the staging work together to communicate to the audience.
“Opera is a hard art form” stresses Simpson at one point, and his description of the collaboration that goes into producing one suggests the same. “Melanie and I talk about the kind of experiences we enjoy and how we want people to receive them” he explains, “then I talk about the kind of words that I think will enable my music to speak, she passes that on to me, I write the music, I pass that on to the director, and it’s just this baton that gets continually passed.” Another artistic layer was added to the piece when Challenger and Simpson discovered the myth of Hephestus, the story of the son of the Greek Gods Zeus and Hera who was cast out of Olympus for being born lame. By merging this with Simpson’s original idea, the story of revenge that is Pleasure developed further.
Staging an opera also means a shift in position for the young composer, now forced to write music that does not just stand alone but operates within the artistic context of his collaborator’s work. “There are levels of restraint that are limiting but in a good way.” Simpson says, “they have to be limiting. The fact that there is text and that there is narrative means I have to kind of restrain myself in order to serve both.” The emphasis that Simpson places on the collaborative dimension of his work captures his desire to create a piece of art that communicates with the audience through all of its elements.
Produced in collaboration with Opera North, Aldeburg Music, and Royal Opera House, after debuting in Leeds, the production goes on to Liverpool – which Simpson says that he is incredibly excited for. “I know there will be a lot of first time opera-goers in the audience” he says, a prospect that excites Simpson. The opera, however, is not meant only to be an introduction – “we didn’t dilute the piece for first-time-goers” – but it serves as an experience powerful enough to show the novices how exciting good opera can be. Simpson describes how he and Challenger wanted more than anything to create “a really visceral experience that you can come back to on repeat listenings” but that also makes first time opera-goers exclaim “wow that was really something”. Simspon stresses his desire not to compromise his artistic vision but does not believe that this conflicts with the project of introducing novices to the power of the art form that he loves so much. Opera, in its best form, should dazzle audiences in the way he wants to.
This desire for a visceral effect seems to emerge from what is evidently the aspect of both music and theatre that matters most to Simpson: communication. “What me and Melanie wanted […] is direct communication,” he stresses at one point. “As I get older and the more music I write, [communication] is becoming one of the sticking points of my approach.” Simpson is, I should note, very funny, and amusingly remarks on “the amount of times I’ve seen an opera and as I’m leaving the audience, I just think ‘that was a waste of my life!’” But Simpson is not in the least bit cynical about the capacity of this five hundred year old art form to communicate important truths to modern audiences. In Pleasure he has sought to bring what he sees as the greatest virtues of opera into harmony with a vision of modernity all too familiar to the audiences he hopes that this piece will reach. If his enthusiasm and his previous work are anything to go off, we can expect real magic. M