Liverpool’s foremost young musician, Mark Simpson, is weighing up his next move: return home to Merseyside or relocate to Berlin? Sitting in the Everyman café, sun streaming through the street-to-ceiling windows, the 27-year-old clarinettist-composer admits, “I’m at a stage in my life where it’s like:” – with mock exasperation – “What am I doing? Where am I going?” For Simpson, such self-examination isn’t new. In 2006, he had an annus mirabilis plus, winning both BBC Young Musician of the Year and BBC Young Composer of the Year, a feat unmatched by anyone before or since. Do a double like that and the phone doesn’t stop ringing. From the age of 17, Simpson has had endless choice about where to go and what to do. What’s impressive is how well he’s chartered his career since its explosive beginnings. There seems to have barely been a misstep along the way. Ten years on, he’s back in town to talk about his new composition, PLEASURE, his debut opera showing at the Liverpool Playhouse for one night only on 4th May. Set in the North of England in a gay club of the same name, Pleasure is not only based on Simpson’s personal experiences but is directly linked to that extraordinary period when he was first heralded as the new prodigy of classical music in Britain.
“The idea came about back in 2008,” he tells me, slightly disbelieving that the project is actually going to happen. “My life was pretty crazy.” In the aftermath of the two accolades came a year of frenzied activity: commissions as both a composer and as a performer, concerts around the world. Lost in classical music, Simpson relished the respite that coming back to Liverpool offered. Here, he could go out to town with his mates and forget all his worries, or at least try to.
Exhausted and stretched, one night Simpson found himself confiding his troubles in an unlikely figure: “I was slumped in the corner talking to this old woman who was a toilet cleaner in one of those clubs.” He lights up remembering the encounter. “She was this mother figure, you know? Had this angelic quality almost. I basically poured out my heart and soul to her.”
What could have wound up as a half-recalled hangover anecdote quickly morphed into something much bigger. In the middle of their conversation, Simpson wondered who this cleaner actually was, what kind of life she had led. He kept on with his confessional, “at which point, I thought, I might not be the only person in this club who’s doing this, and what if she knows a lot more about the people in here than she’s letting on? What if she has her own weird, dark history?”
His imagination set in motion, he “suddenly started to see the creative potential of the characters in the club: drag queens, young kids drunk and trying to lose themselves, other characters who seemed to be darker and more mysterious.” A complete and compelling world had revealed itself to Simpson and what’s more he already knew it inside out.
The mystery cleaner, who may well still be in the employ of the Pleasure Rooms or Garlands (Pleasure is based on no one club in particular but rather “the essence of many”), provided the inspiration for Val, the opera’s central character, who is played by Lesley Garrett. A part of the Pleasure furniture, the all-seeing, all-listening Val loses her peripheral status when Nathan (Timothy Nelson), a beautiful and unpredictable young man, gives her a gift. This gift marks the beginning of an emotional and violent night, emotion and violence being the key ingredients of Simpson’s ‘hyper-fairytale.’
Though Simpson knew little about opera back in 2008, he was certain that it was the medium best suited to telling Val’s story. I push him on this, why an opera and not a musical? “Because that’s my world, my classical training,” he explains, talking me through the operas that have inspired him since, “and I thought, actually, opera as an art form can say much more in terms of what I’m searching for.”
Mark Simpson has very clear ideas about what he wants. Inversely, he knows what he doesn’t want. Tropes of musical theatre infuriate him – “I hate it when it breaks into jazz hands” – and a lot of modern opera, intellectualised to the point of saying nothing, leaves him cold: “the idea of the story is lost; it’s too abstract.” Pleasure is something of a middle path between the two art forms, a mix of the cerebral and the emotional, so we can expect a show with genuine drama as well as layered and complex musicality. It’s billed as a thriller for a reason.
Pleasure is the result of collaboration. The lyrics have been written by librettist Melanie Challenger, a celebrated poet with whom Simpson previously worked, on The Immortal, an oratorio which premiered to great acclaim at the Manchester International Festival in 2015. However, their connection predates even this, first finding expression when Simpson composed an orchestral piece, The Mirror Fragment, based on one of Challenger’s poems. After the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra performed the piece as part of the Capital of Culture celebrations, Challenger and Simpson met for the first time in the old Everyman Bistro. There, he put the idea of Pleasure to her and it was an immediate case of “let’s do it”.
Under the Jerwood Opera Writing fellowship scheme, Simpson and Challenger have had time and space to work out their ideas. Simpson is effusive about Challenger’s role in the project: “When I read her poetry, it unlocks the music in me. I couldn’t do without it.” It’s clear that he trusts her implicitly, even when she’s translating his own experiences to text. “It’s so personal to me”, and yet it’s very much a case of a shared vision, with Challenger providing lyrics to Simpson’s song.
Having sold out the opening two nights at Opera North in Leeds, I ask Simpson about the audience he’s aiming for when the show comes to Liverpool. “I hope there will be a lot of first-time opera goers there; I hope it will entice people.” Simpson wants to show that opera is not an inaccessible art form, although he admits it’s an expensive one to put on the stage: “Throughout the process I had my publisher saying, ‘Are you sure you want to write for 11 instruments? Can you get rid of one of the synthesisers?’”
The financial aspect of classical music is something that troubles Mark Simpson, particularly when it comes to education. Looking back on his school years, he is grateful for the opportunities which were afforded to him – free lessons, access to bands – and dismayed that such opportunities no longer exist: “Local Authority-funded music service was basically a pathway to where I am now.” Where Simpson was taught in a class of three, the rare free lessons available now have to accommodate 30 school kids at a time. “No-one wants to go on [in a career] afterwards,” he intones. I ask him if he would be able to replicate his achievements under the current system of music education. He thinks for a while: “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Simpson has ambitions to challenge the economic elitism associated with classical music, and Pleasure is a part of that: “I wanted to show you can have working-class people, real-life ideas”. As well as using his public position to challenge government policy, he also has plans to found a new classical music festival in Liverpool to replace the one that fell to Tory cuts. All this would be enough for getting on with, but then there’s also the small matter of his career. He is Composer in Association with the BBC Philharmonic, he’s currently working on a new collaboration with Challenger, he’s booked to play the Salzburg Festival and he’s releasing a CD, Night Music, on 20th May which charts the evolution of his chamber music from 2006 to 2014. Oh, and he has to decide where to live for the next few years too. I ask him if he ever feels overwhelmed by it all. He admits to being a worrier, but goes on to say, “I wanna be that person. If it was too difficult to deal with, I wouldn’t do it”. No matter where he ends up, Mark Simpson knows what he’s doing and he knows where he’s going.
Pleasure shows at The Playhouse Theatre on 4th May. Tickets are available from everymanplayhouse.com/pleasure