Billy Budd (opera)

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Billy Budd
Opera by Benjamin Britten
Britten in 1968
Based onBilly Budd
by Herman Melville
1 December 1951 (1951-12-01) (original four-act version)
9 January 1964 (1964-01-09) (revised two-act version)

Billy Budd, Op. 50, is an opera by Benjamin Britten to a libretto by the English novelist E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, based on the short novel Billy Budd by Herman Melville.[1] Originally in four acts, the opera received its premiere at the Royal Opera House (ROH), London, on 1 December 1951.[2] Britten later revised the work into a two-act opera, with a prologue and an epilogue. The revised version received its first performance at the ROH, Covent Garden, London, on 9 January 1964.[3]

Composition history[edit]

E. M. Forster had an interest in the novella, which he discussed in his Clark lectures at Cambridge University. Forster had admired Britten's music since 1937 when he attended a performance of the play The Ascent of F6 (for which Britten wrote incidental music). Forster met Britten in October 1942, when he heard Peter Pears and Britten perform Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo at the National Gallery.[4] In 1948, Britten and Forster discussed whether Forster might write an opera libretto. They agreed on Billy Budd as a work to be adapted into an opera, with a formal meeting in January 1949 to discuss the project.[5] Forster worked with Eric Crozier, a regular Britten collaborator, to write the libretto.[6][7] Scholar Hanna Rochlitz has studied the adaptation and collaboration in detail.[8][9]

While Britten was composing the music, the Italian composer Giorgio Federico Ghedini premiered his one-act operatic setting of Billy Budd at the 1949 Venice International Festival. This disturbed Britten, but Ghedini's opera gained little notice.

Britten originally intended the title role for Geraint Evans, who prepared it but withdrew because it lay too high for his voice. Britten chose Theodor Uppman to replace him, and Evans sang a different role, that of Mr Flint.[10]

Performance history[edit]

When Britten conducted the opera's premiere, in its original form of four acts, the performance received 15 curtain calls. Critical reaction to the premiere, according to a December 1951 New York Times article, was "a very good press and a very fair one, enthusiastic if not really ecstatic".[11] Billy Budd received its United States première in 1952 in performances by Indiana University Opera Company. In 1952, NBC television presented a condensed version of the opera.[12] Performances of the original version fell off in number in the subsequent years.[3] The original four-act version has been occasionally revived, such as at the Vienna State Opera in 2001[13] and 2011.

In 1960, Britten revised the score into a two-act version, in preparation for a BBC broadcast. Vere's first appearance after the prologue had been originally the Captain's Muster, in which he addresses the crew at the end of Act 1; Britten cut this, explaining to his librettist Eric Crozier that he had never been happy with that scene,[14] so making Vere's first appearance on the ship a private moment alone in his cabin.[n 1] Britten changed some of the structural balance from the contrasting Acts 3 and 4. The first performance of the revised two-act version was on 9 January 1964 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Georg Solti. The 1966 BBC Television broadcast was conducted by Charles Mackerras, with Peter Glossop (baritone) as Billy, Peter Pears as Vere, and Michael Langdon as Claggart.[16] The 1967 Decca studio recording was made of the two-act version; the recording sessions were attended by staff from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The first USA performance of the revised two-act edition was on 4 January 1966 by the American Opera Society.[17] The opera was produced in November 1970 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, with Uppman reprising the title role, Richard Lewis as Vere, Geraint Evans as Claggart, Bruce Yarnell as Redburn, Raymond Michalski as Flint, and Arnold Voketaitis as Ratcliffe.[18]

External videos
video icon Mini-feature of the 2010 Glyndebourne production of Billy Budd 6:26

The Metropolitan Opera first staged Billy Budd in 1978.[19] Glyndebourne Festival Opera first staged the opera in 2010, in the operatic directorial debut of Michael Grandage;[20] the production was revived in 2013.[21]

A new performing edition of the work, with a revised orchestration by Steuart Bedford, premiered at Des Moines Metro Opera on 1 July 2017.[22]

Baritones who have sung the role of Billy Budd include Sir Thomas Allen, Sir Simon Keenlyside, Richard Stilwell, Dale Duesing, Nathan Gunn, Rod Gilfry, Bo Skovhus, Thomas Hampson, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Peter Mattei, Jacques Imbrailo and Liam Bonner. Notable Veres have included Peter Pears, Richard Cassilly, Philip Langridge, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and John Mark Ainsley.

Several academic studies investigate various thematic undertones in the opera, including homosexuality and salvation.[23][24]


Role Voice type Premiere cast, 1 December 1951
(original four-act version)
(Conductor: Benjamin Britten)[25]
Premiere cast for the revised two-act version
9 January 1964 (Conductor: Georg Solti)
Captain Vere of HMS Indomitable tenor Peter Pears Richard Lewis
Billy Budd, able seaman baritone Theodor Uppman Robert Kerns
John Claggart, Master-at-arms bass Frederick Dalberg Forbes Robinson
Mr. Redburn, First Lieutenant baritone Hervey Alan John Shaw
Mr. Flint, Sailing Master bass-baritone Geraint Evans Ronald Lewis
Lieutenant Ratcliffe baritone or bass Michael Langdon David Kelly
Red Whiskers, an impressed man tenor Anthony Marlowe Kenneth MacDonald
Donald baritone Bryan Drake Robert Savoie
Dansker, an old seaman bass Inia Te Wiata Inia Te Wiata
A Novice tenor William McAlpine Joseph Ward
The Novice's Friend baritone John Cameron John Rhys-Evans
Squeak tenor David Tree Robert Bowman
Bosun bass Ronald Lewis Delme Bryn-Jones
First Mate bass Rhydderch Davies Dennis Wicks
Second Mate bass Hubert Littlewood Eric Garrett
Maintop tenor Emlyn Jones Kenneth Collins
Arthur Jones, an impressed man tenor or baritone Alan Hobson Keith Raggett
Cabin Boy spoken role Peter Flynn John Newton
Four midshipmen trebles Brian Ettridge, Kenneth Nash, Peter Spencer, Colin Waller Darian Angardi, Bruce Webb, David Sellar, Raymond Hatch
Chorus: Midshipmen, Powder monkeys, Officers, Sailors, Drummers, Marines Royal Opera Chorus & Children from Kingsland Central School

Billy Budd is one of very few operas to have an all-male cast.[26]


4 flutes (2nd, 3rd and 4th doubling piccolos), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet and 2nd bass clarinet), bass clarinet (doubling 3rd clarinet), alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets (3rd in D), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (six players xylophone, glockenspiel, triangle, block, tambourine, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, whip, cymbals, small gong, 4 drums (played by drummers on stage), harp, strings.


Place: On board the battleship HMS Indomitable, a "seventy-four"
Time: The French Revolutionary Wars in 1797

1951 original 4-act version[edit]



Scene 1: Main deck and quarter-deck of HMS Indomitable

Scene 2: Address

Act 2

Scene 1: Captain Vere's cabin

Scene 2: Berth-deck

Act 3

Scene 1: Main deck and quarter-deck

Scene 2: Captain Vere's cabin

Act 4

Scene 1: Bay of the upper gun-deck

Scene 2: Main deck and quarter-deck


1960 version[edit]


Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, an old man, reflects on his life and his time in the navy. He reflects on the conflict between good and evil, tormented by guilt over the case of Billy Budd on board his ship, HMS Indomitable, some years earlier.

Act 1[edit]

The crew of the Indomitable works on deck. For slipping and bumping into an officer, the Novice is sentenced to be flogged. At the same time a cutter approaches, returning from a merchant ship where it has pressed three sailors into the Royal Navy.

One of these sailors, Billy Budd, seems overjoyed with his situation – entirely different from the other two, Joseph Higgins and Arthur Jones, who are not so happy. Claggart, the Master-at-Arms, calls him "a find in a thousand", despite having a stammer. Billy says a jaunty farewell to the Rights o' Man, his former ship, innocent of what his words imply. The officers, forgetting mention of the name of his prior ship, take his words as a deliberate provocation and order the men below decks. Claggart tells Squeak, the ship's corporal, to keep an eye on Billy and give him a rough time.

The Novice is brought back from his flogging, unable to walk and helped along by a friend. The cruelty of the punishment shocks Billy, but he feels certain that if he follows the rules he will be in no danger. Dansker, an old sailor, nicknames Billy "Baby Budd" for his naïveté.

At this point in the four-act version, the climax of Act I features Captain Vere on deck to give a speech to the men. In the two-act version, after Billy has asked about the ship's captain, Dansker mentions Captain Vere's nickname, "Starry Vere," and this is enough for the impulsive Billy to swear his loyalty to the unseen captain.

In his cabin, Captain Vere muses over classical literature. His officers Mr Redburn and Mr Flint enter, and they discuss the Revolution in France and the Spithead and Nore mutinies sparked by French ideas of democracy. The officers warn that Billy may cause trouble, but Vere dismisses their fears and expresses his love for the men under his command.

Below decks, the sailors rough-house, but Dansker remains aloof. Billy goes for some tobacco to cheer him up, and discovers Squeak rifling through his kit. In a rage, Billy begins to stammer. Squeak draws a knife, and fights with Billy, who knocks Squeak to the ground as Claggart and the corporals enter. Billy is still unable to speak, but Dansker relates the events of the fight at Claggart's request. Claggart sends Squeak to the brig, to keep him silent. When alone, Claggart reveals his hatred for Billy and vows to destroy him. He orders the Novice to try to bribe Billy into joining a mutiny, and the broken-spirited Novice quickly agrees. Billy refuses the bribe and believes he will be rewarded, but Dansker warns him to beware of Claggart.

Act 2[edit]

Claggart asks to see Vere, and after being granted access, begins to tell Vere about danger of mutiny led by one of the crew. However, the sighting of a French ship interrupts Claggart's narrative. The Indomitable goes in pursuit, and fires a warning shot, but loses the enemy in the mist. Claggart returns, and tells Vere that Billy poses a threat of mutiny. Vere does not believe him and sends for Billy so that Claggart may confront him.

Later, in Vere's cabin, Claggart repeats the false charge to Billy's face. Once again, Billy begins to stammer in rage. Unable to speak, he strikes Claggart, killing him. Captain Vere convenes a drumhead court for an immediate court-martial. The officers find Billy guilty and sentence him to hang. Billy begs Vere to save him, and the officers appeal to him for guidance, but Vere remains silent and accepts their verdict. He goes into the cabin where Billy is being held. The meeting between Captain Vere and Billy Budd is represented by 34 orchestral block chords, with no words.[28] (This was the end of Act 3 in the four-act version.)

Billy prepares for his execution in his cell. Dansker brings him a drink and reveals that the crew is willing to mutiny for his sake, but Billy argues against that and is resigned to his fate. At four o'clock that morning, the crew assembles on deck, and Billy is brought out. The Articles of War are read, and state that Billy must be hanged. Just before his execution, he praises Vere with his final words, singing "Starry Vere, God Bless you!". Following the execution, the crew begins to mutter in disaffection, which the officers quickly react to suppress.


Vere, as an old man, remembers Billy's burial at sea, and acknowledges that he could have saved Billy, but failed to do so, thinking that Billy has instead blessed and saved him. As he recalls Billy's blessing, he realises he has discovered genuine goodness and can be at peace with himself.


Year Cast:
Billy Budd,
Captain Vere,
John Claggart
Opera House and Orchestra
1951 Theodor Uppman,
Peter Pears,
Frederick Dalberg
Benjamin Britten,
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (original version, recording of the world premiere performance)
Cat: VAIA 1034-3
1967 Peter Glossop,
Peter Pears,
Michael Langdon
Benjamin Britten,
London Symphony Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus (revised version)
CD: Decca,
Cat: 417 428-2LH3
1997 Thomas Hampson,
Anthony Rolfe-Johnson,
Eric Halfvarson
Kent Nagano,
Hallé Orchestra and the Hallé Choir, Northern Voices, and the Manchester Boys' Choir (original version)[30]
CD: Erato,
Cat: 3984 21631-2
1999 Simon Keenlyside,
Philip Langridge,
John Tomlinson
Richard Hickox,
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (revised version)
CD: Chandos,
Cat: CHAN 9826[31]
2004 Bo Skovhus,
Neil Shicoff,
Eric Halfvarson
Donald Runnicles,
Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera (original version)
CD: Orfeo d'Or
Cat: C 602 033 D[13]
2008 Nathan Gunn,
Ian Bostridge,
Gidon Saks
Daniel Harding,
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus[32]
Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording 2010
CD: Virgin Classics,
Cat: 50999 5 19039 2 3 (revised version)
2011 Jacques Imbrailo,
John Mark Ainsley,
Philip Ens
Mark Elder,
London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne Chorus
DVD: Glyndebourne,
Cat: OA BD 7086D (revised version)
2013 Jacques Imbrailo,
John Mark Ainsley,
Philip Ens
Mark Elder,
London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne Chorus
CD: Glyndebourne,
Cat: GFOCD 017-10 (revised version)


Informational notes

  1. ^ According to Uppman, Pears had never felt at ease with this scene, since it required a heroic style of singing which he felt he did not naturally possess. The editors of Letters from a Life further suggest that Britten was stung by a review by Ernest Newman who compared the scene with Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore.[15]


  1. ^ Ellie Stedall (21 August 2013). "Glyndebourne 2013: Billy Budd – 'I was lost on the infinite sea'". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  2. ^ Farnsworth Fowle (3 December 1951). "Britten's Opera Hailed in London; Composer Conducts Premiere of Billy Budd – American Scores in the Title Role". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  3. ^ a b Andrew Porter (10 January 1964). "Opera by Britten Given in London; Billy Budd Revived by the Covent Garden Opera". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  4. ^ Carpenter, p. 267
  5. ^ Philip Reed (6 May 2010). "Britten and EM Forster: A meeting of minds on the high seas". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  6. ^ Law, Joe K. (Summer–Autumn 1985). ""We Have Ventured to Tidy up Vere": The Adapters' Dialogue in Billy Budd". Twentieth Century Literature. 31 (2/3): 297–314. doi:10.2307/441298. JSTOR 441298.
  7. ^ James Fenton (2 December 2005). "The sadist and the stutterer". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  8. ^ Hanna Rochlitz (2012). "Sea-changes: Melville–Forster–Britten: The Story of Billy Budd and its Operatic Adaptation" (PDF). Universitätsverlag Göttingen. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  9. ^ Whitall, Arnold (August 2013). "Sea-changes: Melville–Forster–Britten: The Story of Billy Budd and its Operatic Adaptation. By Hanna Rochlitz". Music & Letters. 94 (3): 531–533. doi:10.1093/ml/gct090. S2CID 194047976.
  10. ^ Cooke, Mervyn; Reed, Philip (1993). Benjamin Britten, Billy Budd. Cambridge University Press. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-521-38750-7.
  11. ^ Stephen Williams (9 December 1951). "Premiere of Britten's Billy Budd Stirs London; Disciples". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  12. ^ Ward-Griffin, Danielle (August 2019). "Realism Redux: Staging Billy Budd in the Age of Television". Music & Letters. 100 (3): 447–480. doi:10.1093/ml/gcz064.
  13. ^ a b Andrew Clements (29 April 2004). "Britten: Billy Budd, Shicoff/ Skovhus/ Halfvarson/ Vienna State Opera/ Runnicles". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  14. ^ Letter dated 5 August 1960, quoted in Britten (2010): p. 253
  15. ^ Britten (2010): p. 254
  16. ^ Liner notes for Decca/BBC DVD of 1966 broadcast
  17. ^ Raymond Ericson (5 January 1966). "New Billy Budd in US Premiere". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  18. ^ Harold C. Schonberg (11 November 1970). "Billy Budd, 1951 Britten Opera, Staged in Chicago". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  19. ^ Anthony Tommasini (6 May 2012). "Sailor Fighting the Undertow of Repression". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  20. ^ Andrew Clements (21 May 2010). "Billy Budd, Glyndebourne". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  21. ^ George Hall (12 August 2013). "Billy Budd – review, Glyndebourne, Lewes". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  22. ^ John von Rhein (17 January 2018). "World-class opera grows tall and proud in the Corn Belt". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  23. ^ Hindley, Clifford (August 1989). "Love and Salvation in Britten's Billy Budd". Music & Letters. 70 (3): 363–381. doi:10.1093/ml/70.3.363.
  24. ^ Fuller, Michael (Summer 2006). "The Far-Shining Sail: A Glimpse of Salvation in Britten's Billy Budd". The Musical Times. 147 (1895): 17–24. doi:10.2307/25434380. JSTOR 25434380.
  25. ^ *Herbert, David, ed. (1979). The Operas of Benjamin Britten. London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-10256-1.
  26. ^ Wolf, Matt (1 June 2010). "In 'Billy Budd,' a Cry for Kindness Pierces a Haunting Moral Grayness". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 October 2020.
  27. ^ Source: Britten-Pears Foundation
  28. ^ Hindley, Clifford (Spring 1994). "Britten's Billy Budd: The "Interview Chords" Again". The Musical Quarterly. 78 (1): 99–126. doi:10.1093/mq/78.1.99.
  29. ^ "CLBRBILL.HTM". Archived from the original on 9 March 2017. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  30. ^ The Daily Telegraph, London, 21 February 1998, p. A8
  31. ^ Edward Greenfield (12 May 2000). "A sea of emotion". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  32. ^ Andrew Clements (18 September 2008). "Classical review: Britten: Billy Budd, Gunn/Bostridge/Saks/LSO & Chorus/Harding". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 July 2020.


  • Allen, Stephen Arthur, "Billy Budd: Temporary Salvation and the Faustian Pact", Journal of Musicological Research, Vol. 25, Issue 1, January 2006:43–73.
  • Britten, Benjamin (2010). Philip Reed; Mervyn Cooke (eds.). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Volume V, 1958–1965. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. ISBN 978-1-84383-591-2.
  • Carpenter, Humphrey. Benjamin Britten: A Biography London: Faber & Faber, 1992. ISBN 0-571-14325-3
  • Whittall, Arnold. "Billy Budd" in Stanley Sadie, (Ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. One, pp. 473–476. London: Macmillan Publishers, Inc. 1998 ISBN 0-333-73432-7 ISBN 1-56159-228-5

External links[edit]