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Theatre / Billy Budd

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Herman Melville's sad tale about the Handsome Sailor has inspired an opera by Benjamin Britten (with a libretto supplied by E. M. Forster).

The opera's prologue opens with an aged Captain Edward Fairfax Vere remembering his life, his time in the wars, and his service as captain of the HMS Indomitable. Of all the thorny situations of good and evil he's witnessed, this has haunted him more than any other. In the summer of 1797, the HMS Indomitable sails the seas. Aboard there is great tension and anger: the officers are sadistic bullies, none more so than Master-at-Arms Claggart, and they're all paranoid of falling to mutiny. As well they should be, as the sailors are brutally punished and harbor resentments against the officers, growing more bitter every day. One day, a boat of theirs heads out, and returns, having "impressed" (that is to say, kidnapped) three new sailors off of a humble British merchant ship, the Rights O' Man. Of these three, two of them are wretched and miserable, but the third, a handsome and strapping youth named Billy Budd, is delighted at the prospect of serving in the Navy. As a foundling, this is his best chance of promoting himself to a higher station, and he adores sea life and all that comes with it. With a light heart he gladly sings "Farewell, old life! Farewell, O Rights O' Man!"


To anyone who remembers the name of the ship Billy Budd just left, this gesture makes perfect sense. However, no one on deck remembers the information they were given five minutes ago, and instead, in their paranoia, they hear Billy Budd bidding farewell to a prime philosophical underpinning of The French Revolution. And just like that, Billy Budd marks himself as trouble, and especially in the eyes of Jemmy-Legs Claggart...


This work provides examples of:

  • Angrish: Immediately after Billy is hanged, the crew abandons speech entirely, singing in wordless, guttural grunts to convey their fury.
  • Chromosome Casting: The cast and chorus is entirely male.
  • Depraved Homosexual: Claggart. Also in the book, but here even more, even calling Budd "Beauty" and encouraging him to mind his looks, and spending an aria ruminating over his beauty, his handsomeness, and how desirable he is.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Aversion. He does, but it hurts. Claggart sings: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it and suffers"
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Claggart is a basso profondo, much like Hagen. This is subverted, however, with the man in charge of whipping the novice. His voice is very deep, and he's in charge of the ship's brutal punishments, but he begs Claggart to go easy on the boy, and treats the novice with kindness and tenderness. It seems like he's Just Following Orders.
  • Fanservice: In most performances, Billy, some minor characters and the chorus have shirtless scenes.
  • Flashback: The entire opera is Vere's flashback.
  • Heroic BSoD: Vere's aria "I accept their verdict" after the court-martial. Wangst ensues.
  • The Mole: Squeak initially serves this role among the men, as Claggart's eyes, ears, and hands. The Novice, so broken in spirit after his whipping, agrees to do whatever dirty work Claggart wants as long as he never gets whipped again.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Vere in the Prologue and in the Epilogue.
  • Ominous Fog: Vere curses the fog that obscures the French frigate from their sight. But his dread of the fog isn't supernatural — after the men have been riled up for a good sea-battle with their hated enemies, for the fog to descend suddenly and deny them their action has put everyone on edge, and he fears somebody will snap.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Claggart. See above.
  • Villain Song: Claggart's aria about how much evil he is and how he totally lusts for Billy hates Billy and will destroy him.
  • Warrior Poet: Vere. He opens and closes the play with his mournful and very poetic signing.