Opera North Blog

Billy Budd in a nutshell


Everything you need to know about Billy Budd in one place — right here!

What is the story?

Billy Budd is a gripping psychological drama, based on the short novel by Herman Melville.

The opera takes place in 1797 (during the French Revolutionary Wars) on board the HMS Indomitable. A young sailor is pressed into the Royal Navy, and finds himself serving under the repressive regime of master-at-arms John Claggart. Unable to bear the goodness and beauty that Billy radiates, Claggart determines to destroy him, and incites a false charge of mutiny. Enraged by these accusations, Billy strikes the master-at-arms – and kills him. His fate is now in the hands of the ship’s captain, Vere, whose mind we inhabit throughout the opera. What decision does Vere make, and how will he come to terms with what happened aboard the HMS Indomitable?

Who are the characters?

Vere — Captain of HMS Indomitable (tenor)
Billy Budd — a young sailor (baritone)
Claggart — the master-at-arms (bass)
Mr Redburn — First Lieutenant (baritone)
Mr Flint — Sailing Master (bass baritone)

…plus many other members of the HMS Indomitable crew (officers, sailors, midshipmen, powder monkeys etc.) 

What is the music like?

Billy Budd is one of Benjamin Britten’s largest scale operas, featuring a sizeable orchestra and enormous all-male choral forces.

Listen out for Britten’s incredibly detailed scene painting and skill in evoking emotions, such as the isolation and loneliness of Captain Vere's opening monologue which uses bitonality (i.e. two chords at the same time against each other) to create an unsettled feeling, or the opening chorus 'O heave', whose laboured rhythm represents the heaviness of the sailors' day to day life on the ship, as well as the swell of the ocean. 

There’s fun too — Britten creates a great sense of the sailors 'letting their hair down’ during the Act I scene below deck, and the Act II battle sequence featuring the full chorus, shouting of children and an incredible orchestral depiction of the cacophony and panic of preparing for an attack is a thrilling experience. Hear it below performed by our own Billy Budd cast and chorus: 

What is this production like?

This production of Billy Budd, directed by Orpha Phelan and designed by Leslie Travers, is brand new. The costumes are modelled on traditional eighteenth century naval dress, with each sailor dressed according to his rank.

However, as the opera’s plot is in fact the memories and reflections of the old Captain Vere, the action takes place in the much more abstract spaces of his mind, rather than on a literal ship. This set therefore has no mast or sails, but is an incredibly atmospheric space with spectacular split levels. The walls of cabins are created not from a material, but out of the men on stage, enhancing the sense of stifling claustrophobia on board a warship at sea...

A little more about the opera

Who was the composer?

Billy Budd was written by British composer Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) with a libretto by novelist E.M. Forster and Britten’s major collaborator Eric Crozier.

Britten is considered to be the most important British composer of the last century, with a diverse output of operas, orchestral work, chamber pieces and other vocal music, including arrangements of folk songs. His operas are believed to be his greatest legacy and today they are performed worldwide more frequently than that of any other 20th Century born composer.

Some history

Benjamin Britten’s relationship with E.M. Forster (A Passage to India, A Room with a View) began in earnest in the mid-1940s. Forster had, however, already been an admirer of Britten’s work for many years, and the two soon became both great friends and mutual influences.

In 1948, while speaking at the First Aldeburgh Festival, Forster remarked “it amuses me what an opera on Peter Grimes (which had premiered in 1945) would have been like if I had written it”! Britten got the hint, and soon after, Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd came to light as a possible subject on which they could collaborate — it suited both composer and librettist, plus Forster had actually lectured on the novel at Cambridge University. Even so, he was reluctant at first due to concerns that he had little experience writing opera libretti, but agreed once Britten’s regular collaborator Eric Crozier had also been brought on board. 

The opera premiered at the Royal Opera House in 1951 under the baton of the composer himself and was a great success, receiving 17 curtain calls and making young baritone Theodor Uppman, who sang the title role, a new star. Today Billy Budd along with Peter Grimes, is considered to be the greatest British opera of the 20th Century.

Did you know?

  • E.M. Forster had very clear ideas about what he wanted from the musical setting of his words, which led to some tension! He wrote to the composer on Claggart’s aria ‘O Beauty, O Handsomeness, Goodness’: “It is my most important piece of writing, and I did not, at my first hearings, feel it sufficiently important musically … I want passion — love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but nevertheless flowing down its agonising channel; a sexual discharge gone evil...” Intense stuff!
  • The role of Captain Vere was originally sung and written for Britten’s personal and professional partner, tenor Peter Pears.
  • The opera was originally in four acts, but Britten produced a revised and compressed two act version in 1960 for a BBC broadcast, which is the version most frequently performed today, including here at Opera North this season.
  • Britten’s opera is just one of many artistic and cultural responses to Melville’s novel — in 1949, a one-act operatic adaptation by Italian composer Ghedini appeared (but had little success), in 1962, Peter Ustinov directed a film version starring a young Terence Stamp, and the novel is famously discussed in a scene from U.S. TV series The Sopranos… 

Billy Budd is sung in English without titles, and lasts approximately three hours including one interval. 

For more info or to book tickets, visit the Billy Budd webpage.

In a nutshell is a blog series devised by Opera North.

Images (t-b):
Billy Budd at Opera North, 2016. Photography by Clive Barda
Benjamin Britten, E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier 
Britten and E.M. Forster go boating while working on Billy Budd, October 1949. 

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