When you think opera, you’re probably not thinking of silver streamers and 15-feet-high lowercase, sans-serif letters spelling out ‘pleasure’ that radiate different neon hues. And you’re most likely not picturing a drag queen baritone in a nightrobe and heels emphatically singing, “I’m an old bitch”, or a multi-coloured balloon-popping performance from the top tier of a gay club. This, however, is what Pleasure, Mark Simpson’s new chamber opera co-commissioned by Aldeburgh Music, The Royal Opera and Opera North, has to offer.
Simpson and librettist Melanie Challenger take the operatic form and transplant it to a scene where a different type of diva reigns. The result is a melange of inspiration, dashes of Simpson’s personal experiences mixed with references to the myth of Hephaestus. And that is exactly what makes it exciting; this is an opera that is unapologetic about its form yet still invites us to make connections outside of what’s considered the classical canon.
Contrary to its name, much of the piece is about anguish and loneliness. While set in a gay nightclub ‘somewhere in England’, all of the action takes place away from the dance floor, in the back yard and the toilets. Val (Lesley Garrett) is a cleaner at the club and a mother figure to many of the men that stumble through its doors. Matthew (Nick Pritchard) is one of them, and when he meets newcomer Nathan (Timothy Nelson), his giddy excitement is countered by Val’s encounter with her past. Anna Fewmore (Steven Page) is the resident drag queen who laments about fleeting youth, and both she and Val make up ‘the spirits of Pleasure’; they haunt the place and reflect on its sordid existence.
There is an ominousness in the music that is also haunting. Even when the glistening fanfare appears (what might be an equivalent to a chorus of a top-40 chart), there still remains a hint of menace in the strings. Like Sia’s Chandelier, it’s actually about pain as much as pleasure, and casts back the dark side of an endless night — the heightened feelings of alienation, of intoxication, and of abandonment that might be the only things you take home with you.
Simpson shrewdly stays clear of mimicking thumping bass beats and instead orchestrates the interior anxieties of each character with chilling clarity. When Matthew seduces Nathan, the syncopated rhythm is like the palpating heart, increasing in its rhythm and arousing the listener. Garrett makes a beautifully voiced yet vulnerable Val and Page is arresting as Anna Fewmore. But the highlight is actually a silent one: the instruments drop out in hopeful stillness as Matthew considers a rare feeling found in a club, “But what if there’s love?”.
This silence leaves us a little too quickly. The storyline turns tragic and doesn’t pursue Matthew’s hope for love. And instead of hitting a universal tragic note, the climax closes in on the characters’ particular lives. There are complex questions about belonging, loneliness and hedonism written into the script, but their poignancy deflates as a conventional storyline overshadows the dance driven pleasure-seekers offstage.
That looming presence, that thrilling search for satisfaction is the driving force of the opera. While felt and not heard, it saturates the sound. Simpson and Challenger create this heightened atmosphere but when it’s needed most, it sadly fades away.
Pleasure was on at Lyric, Hammersmith. Click here for more information.