Billy Budd is a 20th century opera written by English composer Herman Melville, under the pen name of Benjamin Britten, which is only to say that you will not go home humming anything from this opera, if you know what I mean. I suppose technically it was also written by librettists E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, but as I have mentioned before, nobody cares about librettists. Do you see their names on the cover?
No, I didn’t think so.
Billy Budd is the captivating story of a young novice sailor who overcomes his fears and self-doubts to make something of himself on the British war ship, The Interminable (named after the traditional lengths of most operas). The story starts out with the Captain of the ship, years in the future. He is old now, and wanting to relive his glory days in his mind, so he thinks back to his favorite time in life, the time when the young novice was coming into his own…
We move into Act 1 without any warning, and we find the sailors running about the ship yelling stuff and that sort of thing. Almost immediately the novice enters and crashes into the Bosun. Bosun is a nautical variant of the word ‘boatswain,’ which is derived from the old English word ‘bat’ and the old Norse word ‘sveinn,’ which means follower, so technically bosun means ‘follower of the bat,’ or ‘vampire.’ Anyway, the novice bumps into the vampire, who gets really mad and threatens to flog him if it weren’t daylight, when his powers of darkness were weakened. The novice scurries off, only to come back two pages later and bump into him again.
At this point, the vampire is so angry that he decides to have our hero flogged anyway, and so the young novice is dragged off screaming. While he is gone, some new sailors are pressed into service on The Interminable, one of whom is Billy Budd. Billy is important to the novice’s journey later on, and also important because the show is named after him for reasons I do not entirely understand.
After Billy is introduced the novice reenters, having been severely flogged, and bemoans his fate. This is the sad part of the show, but luckily it is all uphill from here. You see, in the next scene we learn that the Captain is afraid of mutiny on his ship, and his master-at-arms hates Billy Budd. This is all set up for the next bit, in which the novice finally proves himself.
The scene is the ship at night. The master-at-arms has called the novice over to be his right hand man in the task of taking down Billy Budd, suspected mutineer. The novice, now ready to do what it takes to move up the ranks, agrees to go and trick Billy Budd into mutiny while he sleeps. The novice offers a confused and half-asleep Billy some money if he will lead a mutiny. Now, this doesn’t work exactly, it just confuses Billy a lot and makes him stammer a lot, but it works well enough for our purposes.
At this point Act 1 is over and there will be an intermission. This is a good time to leave, because the novice does not actually appear in Act 2, but if you want to stay and find out if the novice’s brilliant scheming was successful, I guess that’s ok. But I will just tell you right now, it was a huge success.
The master-at-arms brings Billy to the Captain and accuses him of mutiny. Luckily, Billy still cannot speak and just stammers at them for a bit, and then punches the master-at-arms to death. Win! Now Billy gets hanged for his crimes, and with his boss dead the novice most assuredly take his place as the new master-of-arms and the only people to know it was all trickery are dead. A happy ending all around.
To sum up, this is a great opera for you if you don’t want anything stuck in your head on the drive home, and if you enjoy happy, light-hearted stories of young underdogs overcoming the odds and reaching their full potential. Also, it full of weird homo-erotic stuff because it is about a bunch of half-naked guys on a boat, so if you are into that too, you will love Billy Budd!