Billy Budd (opera)

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. Originally in four acts, it was first performed at the Royal Opera House, London, on 1 December 1951; it was later revised as a two-act opera with a prologue and an epilogue.

Billy Budd
Opera by Benjamin Britten
The composer in 1968
Based onBilly Budd
by Herman Melville
1 December 1951 (1951-12-01)

Composition history

The author E. M. Forster had an interest in the novella, which he discussed in his Clark lectures at Cambridge University. Having admired Britten's music since attending a performance of The Ascent of F6 in 1937, he first met the composer in October 1942 when he heard Peter Pears accompanied by Britten perform the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo at the National Gallery.[1] In 1948, Britten and Forster discussed whether Forster might write an opera libretto, and by that November, Britten seems to have mentioned Billy Budd as a possible work to be adapted. Forster agreed to this project, and worked with Eric Crozier, a regular Britten collaborator, to write the opera's libretto.[2]

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 then 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.[3]

Performance history

When Britten conducted the opera's premiere, in its original form of four acts, it received 17 curtain calls. Uppman was acclaimed as a new star.

Billy Budd received its United States première in 1952 in performances by Indiana University Opera Company.

In 1960 Britten revised the score substantially in preparation for a BBC broadcast, and compressed it into two acts. 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,[4] 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 original version in four acts is still occasionally revived, such as at the Vienna State Opera in 2001 and 2011, and has been recorded at least twice.

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.[6] 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, where the opera had been revived in this version in 1964.

The opera was produced on 6 November 1970 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, with Uppman reprising the title role; the cast also included Richard Lewis as Vere, Geraint Evans as Claggart, Bruce Yarnell as Redburn, Raymond Michalski as Flint, and Arnold Voketaitis as Ratcliffe.

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

It has become part of the repertory of the New York Metropolitan Opera. A 2010 production by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera marked the operatic directorial debut of the theatre director Michael Grandage.

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

The opera premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow on 25 November 2016. The opera's stage director is David Alden and the conductor is William Lacey.[7][8]

A new performing edition of the work with revised orchestration by Steuart Bedford, leading Britten scholar and conductor, premiered at Des Moines Metro Opera on 1 July 2017.[9]


Role Voice type Premiere cast,
1 December 1951
(Conductor: Benjamin Britten)[10]
Captain Vere of HMS Indomitable tenor Peter Pears
Billy Budd baritone Theodor Uppman
John Claggart, Master-at-arms bass Frederick Dalberg
Mr. Redburn, First Lieutenant baritone Hervey Alan
Mr. Flint, Sailing Master bass-baritone Geraint Evans
Lieutenant Ratcliffe baritone or bass Michael Langdon
Red Whiskers, an impressed man tenor Anthony Marlowe
Donald baritone Bryan Drake
Dansker, an old seaman bass Inia Te Wiata
A Novice tenor William McAlpine
The Novice's Friend baritone John Cameron
Squeak tenor David Tree
Bosun bass Ronald Lewis
First Mate bass Rhydderch Davies
Second Mate bass Hubert Littlewood
Maintop tenor Emlyn Jones
Arthur Jones, an impressed man tenor or baritone Alan Hobson
Cabin Boy spoken role Peter Flynn
Four midshipmen trebles Brian Ettridge, Kenneth Nash, Peter Spencer, Colin Waller
Chorus: Midshipmen, Powder monkeys, Officers, Sailors, Drummers, Marines by Royal Opera Chorus & Children from Kingsland Central School


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[11]


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


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, he is tormented by guilt over the case of Billy Budd on board his ship, HMS Indomitable, some years earlier.

Act 1

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 who are not so happy. Claggart, the Master-at-Arms, calls him "a find in a thousand," despite the slight defect of a stammer. Billy says a jaunty farewell to the Rights o' Man, his former ship, innocent of what his words imply. The officers 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 returns from his flogging, unable to walk and helped along by a friend. Billy is shocked at the cruelty of the punishment, but is certain that if he follows the rules he will be in no danger. Dansker, an old sailor, nicknames Billy "Baby Budd" for his innocence.

At this point in the four-act version came the climax of Act I, in which Captain Vere appeared on deck to give a speech to the men. In the two-act version, Dansker simply tells the others 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 enter, and they discuss the revolution in France and the mutinies in the Royal Navy 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 old Dansker remains gloomy. Billy goes for some tobacco to cheer him up, and discovers Squeak rifling through his kit. In a rage, Billy begins to stammer. He knocks Squeak to the ground as Claggart and the corporals enter. Billy is still unable to speak, but Claggart takes his side and sends Squeak to the brig. However, 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

Claggart begins to tell Vere about the danger that Billy represents, but is interrupted by the sighting of a French ship. The Indomitable attacks, 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. The Captain is forced to convene an immediate court-martial, and 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, and the orchestra suggests a tender offstage meeting as the captain informs Billy of the death sentence. 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 is resigned to his fate. Four o'clock that morning, the crew assembles on deck, and Billy is brought out. The Articles of War are read, and show that Billy must be hanged. Just before his execution, he praises Vere with his final words, singing "Starry Vere, God Bless you!" echoed by the rest of the crew.


Vere, as an old man, remembers Billy's burial at sea, reflecting that the man he failed to save 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
Cat: VAIA 1034-3
1967 Peter Glossop,
Peter Pears,
Michael Langdon
Benjamin Britten,
London Symphony Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus
CD: Decca,
Cat: 417 428-2LH3
1997 Thomas Hampson,
Anthony Rolfe-Johnson,
Eric Halfvarson
Kent Nagano,
Halle Orchestra and the Halle Choir, Northern Voices, and the Manchester Boys' Choir
(Recording of the original four-act version)[13]
CD: Erato,
Cat: 3984 21631-2
1999 Simon Keenlyside,
Philip Langridge,
John Tomlinson
Richard Hickox,
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
CD: Chandos,
Cat: CHAN 9826


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.[5]


  1. Carpenter, p. 267
  2. James Fenton, "The sadist and the stutterer" Archived 5 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine, The Guardian, 2 December 2005
  3. Cooke, Mervyn; Reed, Philip (1993). Benjamin Britten, Billy Budd. Cambridge University Press. p. 161. ISBN 9780521387507.
  4. Letter dated 5 August 1960, quoted in Britten (2010): p. 253
  5. Britten (2010): p. 254
  6. Liner notes for Decca/BBC DVD of 1966 broadcast
  7. "Billy Budd Premiere". 12 February 2017. Archived from the original on 2 March 2017.
  8. "A Story of One Sailor - Billy Budd". 12 February 2017. Archived from the original on 2 March 2017.
  9. Rhein, John von. "World-class opera grows tall and proud in the Corn Belt". Archived from the original on 17 January 2018. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
    • Herbert, David (editor) (1979). The Operas of Benjamin Britten. London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-10256-1.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  10. Source: Britten-Pears Foundation
  11. "CLBRBILL.HTM". Archived from the original on 9 March 2017. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  12. The Daily Telegraph, London, 21 February 1998, p. A8


  • 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 9781843835912.
  • 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
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