Op. 50 (1951, revised 1960)
Opera in two acts (originally four)
Libretto by EM Forster and Eric Crozier, adapted from the story by Herman Melville
Setting: On board HMS Indomitable during the French Wars of 1797
Original 4-act version: 2 hours 45 minutes
Revised 2-act version: 2 hours 40 minutes
First performance: 1 December 1951, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
First performance of revised version: 9 January 1964, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Edward Fairfax Vere (Captain of HMS Indomitable): Tenor
Billy Budd (foretopman): Baritone
John Claggart (Master-at-Arms): Bass
Mr Redburn (First Fieutenant: Baritone
Mr Flint (Sailing Master): Baritone
Lieutenant Ratcliffe: Bass
Red Whiskers (an impressed man): Tenor
Donald (a sailor): Baritone
Dansker (an old seaman): Bass
A Novice: Tenor
Squeak (a ship’s corporal): Tenor
First Mate: Baritone
Second Mate: Baritone
Novice’s Friend: Baritone
Arthur Jones (an impressed man): Baritone
Four Midshipmen: Boys voices
Cabin boy: Speaking role
Officers, Sailors, Powder monkeys, Drummers, Marines
What’s it About?
The opera is preceded by a prologue in which Captain Vere, as an old man, ponders the significance of events that took place long ago.
Act 1. The main action is set on board the British naval vessel HMS Indomitable in 1797. The crew goes about its tasks driven by the brutality of the ship’s Master-at-arms, John Claggart, who rules by violence. Three new sailors, press-ganged from a passing merchant ship, are brought on board. Two of them are meagre specimens, but the third – Billy Budd – is young, strong and handsome, His goodness wins the hearts of all except Claggart, whose dark world is turned upside down by Billy’s beauty and grace, and who determines to destroy him. To this end, he has his sidekick Squeak rifle amongst Billy’s belongings and when then the young sailor catches him, the old sea dog Dansker warns Billy that Claggart has it in for him. Claggart then has the Novice – cowed into submission by an earlier beating – try to bribe Billy into supporting mutiny, but to no avail.
Act 2. Claggart takes his complaint about Billy to Vere, but he is interrupted in his accusation by a brief skirmish with a French frigate that ends with the enemy escaping. Claggart then accuses Billy, who is called in by Vere to defend himself. His stammer, however, frustrates his attempts to speak, and he knocks Claggart down with a single blow that strikes him dead. At the court martial Vere fails to speak up for Billy, who is then condemned. He goes to his death with Vere’s name on his lips.
In the Epilogue, we return to the aged Vere, who again scrutinises his role in these events.
Did You Know?
1. This is the only all-male opera in the standard opera house repertoire. (Britten would later write three Church Parables with all-male casts, but these are different to conventional operas.)
2. It was originally in four acts with three intervals. Britten revised the opera in 1960 by converting it into two acts, and cutting a scene where Captain Vere musters the troops.
3. The American baritone Theodor (‘Ted’) Uppman was cast as Billy only a few months before the premiere. He had been working as Superintendent of the Oil and Acid Department at Bendix Aviation, California in the summer of 1951.
4. In 1954, the Third Programme broadcast a play called The Private Life of Hilda Tablet by Henry Reed, a humorous account of a fictional female composer. ‘Hilda Tablet’ composed an all-female opera Emily Butter set in a department store, which was clearly a spoof of Billy Budd. It even featured a character called Clara Taggart, who shares a surname with the Master-at-Arms in Britten’s opera.
5. Billy Budd was commissioned by the Festival of Britain, but the negotiations with the administration of the Festival were protracted and complex. The opera in fact premiered after the Festival had finished.
4 flutes (II, III, IV doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets in B flat (II doubling E flat and bass clarinet), bass clarinet (doubling third clarinet), alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon
4 horns, 4 trumpets (I, II, IV in C, III in D), 3 trombones, tuba
Timpani, 6 percussion (xylophone, glockenspiel, triangle, woodblock, tambourine, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, whip, cymbal, suspended cymbal, small gong), harp
4 drums played by drummers on stage
A version with reduced orchestration arranged by Steuart Bedford is also available.
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Find out more
Find out about Billy Budd on ‘Work of the Week’.