Billy Budd

Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd
About the production

Benjamin Britten
E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier based on the story by Hermann Melville

Première on 15th January 2005 at the Nationaltheater


"It's about Power." A Conversation with Peter Mussbach and Erich Wonder

Benjamin Britten's operas are still anything but standard fare on the repertoires of Germany's opera houses even 28 years after the composer's death. It is thus no wonder that in the course of their careers neither stage director Peter Mussbach nor set designer Erich Wonder have yet to have set the scene for a Britten opera. For them, the new production of the opera Billy Budd is just as much a first encounter as it is for Munich and the Nationaltheater, where Billy Budd will receive its first performance in its four-act version on January 15.

Billy Budd tells the story of a young foretopman, who is pressganged into service aboard a warship, where his beauty and good-heartedness win everybody's heart, and yet where a libelous intrigue ultimately results in his being executed. This setting, a ship, a little world of its own on the ocean, awakens associations with claustrophobia in the mind of director Peter Mussbach: "On a ship like that you're hermetically sealed, fully dependent on one another for better or worse, and totally exposed to one another as well. There is no escape, there is no retreat into a private sphere, you are under constant control and supervision." To intensify this claustrophobic situation even further, Mussbach and his designer Erich Wonder have decided to have the opera played not on deck but below decks. "When you look at a cross-section of a ship," says Wonder, "you can see that these ships are very pear-shaped, they are all the wider down below, and down there in the hull is where the dirty work is being done by men who for months never get out of doors. Because of this as well, the ship has become a sign of hopelessness. It is like an island you can't get away from."

In his story, on which the opera is based, American author Herman Melville placed the tale of the able seaman Billy Budd in the year 1797, during the Coalition War and shortly after the mutinies in Spithead and Nore. But neither Wonder nor Mussbach were interested in duplicating a three-master from that period. "We see no point in documenting an Errol Flynn pirate movie," explains Mussbach, "but rather wish to illustrate totally extreme conditions such as the threat of mutiny, enslavement and the subjugation of human beings. A three-master automatically evokes a romantic quality, and Billy Budd is anything but romantic. That is why we wanted to transfer the plot to a contemporary situation everyone could relate to, to intensify it and heighten its plausibility." And when Wonder just happened to see a movie about work on a U.S. aircraft carrier shortly before the outbreak of the Iraq war, the setting for the Munich Billy Budd production had been found. However, said Wonder, the aircraft carrier only supplied the inspiration, this will not be a realistic interior: "I always find it boring when things are staged in one-to-one literal terms in the theatre or the opera. This blocks the spectator. If it is not one hundred per cent established, when the spectator's imagination is given free rein, and he may find himself getting ideas about what happened days after the event, then he has had a real experience. That's why I have not designed a real ship's hull in that sense, but rather created an oppressive, closed atmosphere, which might just evaporate. And we must develop the story in this area between concreteness and the fantasy of the mind."

A story that tells of militarism and a society with clear-cut class distinctions, of naïveté and justice, of homoerotic love and sadistic oppression, of responsibility and the eternal conflict between good and evil. the personifications of which are usually regarded as the good-hearted Billy Budd and the evil, sadistic master-at-arms John Claggart. But Mussbach is of a different opinion here: "The fact that Claggart embodies evil, that is clear, but I see the element of goodness rather in Captain Edward Fairfax Vere: a lonely man, as the captain always under pressure, but always striving to do everything right, and thus always susceptible to the false whispers of evildoers. Billy is the catalyst who always brings the emotions aboard ship to a fever pitch - and not just by virtue of his good looks. Right after their first encounter, Claggart warns the ship's corporal Squeak: 'Watch out for his fists!', because he has instantly noticed that this boy has fire in him - something nobody else on board has any more. But the fact that Claggart of all people will ultimately be killed by the fist he warned of seems like a downright irony. Yet none of the events Billy releases have anything to do with his intentions. I see him in his innocent naïveté as a kind of Parsifal, who suddenly turns up and completely unsettles the lives of Vere and Claggart without wanting to."

This is where the motif of homoerotic love comes into play. A good fifty years ago, when Britten and his two librettists Forster and Crozier were conceiving and writing this opera that was still regarded as a criminal act in Great Britain, and thus could be only more or less hinted at on stage. A direct "I love you", such as the one Aschenbach sang to his beloved Tadzio in Death in Venice 22 years after Billy Budd, would have been unthinkable here. Nevertheless the positions of the three main characters are quite clear for Mussbach: "Billy is not gay. His beauty and his open-uncomplicated nature make him into a general object of desire. Nor is Captain Vere gay, but he does experience homoerotic feelings for the first time with Billy, and when he realizes that he loves the boy, it is as though the earth has fallen away underneath his feet, and he finds himself standing at a bottomless abyss. Claggart, the villain, is gay and Billy forces him out into the open. He experiences what goodness os through him, and is thus unsettled to the same degree as Vere. Both of them love Billy, and at the same time they both also hate him for the crisis they get into because of him, a hatred because of love, a hatred that almost goes back to being love again. Claggart liberates himself from it by falsely accusing Billy of mutiny. For Vere, however, the trial scene with the conviction of Billy becomes a hellish situation. He is too cowardly to help Billy. Were he not to love him, the whole business wouldn't get to him so badly, and he might perhaps have been able to save him. This way, however, he is afraid he might be accused of showing favoritism toward his beloved, and afraid of that, he sacrifices Billy and signs his death sentence."

Compared to the three main characters, Billy, Vere and Claggart, all the rest of the ship's crew - Billy Budd has an all-male cast list - may be playing supporting parts, but they too afford plenty of insight into the social matrix and the class system aboard the ship. "And on all the hierarchical levels," says Mussbach, "are types with the characteristics of the three main characters, represented in alternating forms. Just as Claggart oppresses his subordinates, so too do Flint, Squeak and the boatswain subject the others to their whims; the same way Billy happens to get into the focus of his sadistic superior, so too the novice is flogged for a minor infraction; and like Vere, Redburn also takes his responsibilities first officer very seriously. And these are only a few examples from among many." Ultimately, Mussbach thinks, the common denominator of Billy Budd is that it is all about power "power over oneself and over others, the powers of the laws of war, the power of the officers over their subordinates, the whole ship's hierarchy. Each one has power over others and at the same time somebody with power over him. And of course also the powers of emotions and love."

Ingrid Zellner

English translation by Donald Arthur

© Bavarian State Opera