Setting: The main action of the opera takes place aboard the HMS Indomitable in 1797
To music that reveals his own uncertainty, the aged Captain Vere reflects on the conflict between good and evil. He still finds himself unable to explain what happened to foretopman Billy Budd and to himself many years ago onboard his ship, the Indomitable.
It is 1797, and although the bloodiest years of the French Revolution have passed, its ideas are still considered dangerous, especially at sea, where revolution means mutiny. As the crew of the Indomitable works on deck, the Novice accidentally bumps into another sailor, a transgression that earns him a flogging. A cutter approaches, returning from a merchant ship where it has pressed three sailors into England’s navy. The first two are less than happy about their luck, but the third, Billy Budd, seems overjoyed. Asked about his background, Billy stutters heavily as he remembers his traumatic childhood, but nothing can dampen his enthusiasm. Claggart, the master-at-arms, calls him “a find in a thousand” and assigns him to the foretop. Billy takes his place, bidding a touching farewell to his merchant ship, the Rights o’ Man. The officers, mistaking Billy’s rhapsody for political rabble-rousing, order the crew below. Claggart pulls aside Squeak, the ship’s corporal, telling him to keep an eye on Billy and to give the foretopman a rough time. Dansker, an old sailor, warns Billy to look out for Claggart as the sailors begin to praise Captain Vere. Billy joins their chorus wholeheartedly; he can’t contain his excitement over serving under “Starry Vere.”
In the captain’s cabin a week later, the officers join Vere for a toast. They are eager to engage the French, but Billy’s mention of “the rights of man” worries them. The captain allays their fears: he’s only heard good things about the boy. Billy leaves to get tobacco for Dansker and surprises Squeak, who is rifling through the foretopman’s kit. Furious, Billy begins to stutter and the two men fight. Claggart breaks things up. Left alone, he decides that he must destroy Billy, and he convinces the Novice to attempt to bribe Billy into joining a mutiny. Billy refuses, believing that he will be rewarded for his loyalty despite Dansker’s warning that Claggart is scheming against him.
Several days have passed. Claggart is trying to talk to the captain when someone spots a French ship off the starboard bow. Everyone excitedly prepares for battle, but the wind won’t oblige and the enemy remains out of range. Mist settles in, and the attack is called off. Claggart gets the captain’s attention and accuses Billy of offering the Novice gold to mutiny. Vere cannot believe it, but martial law demands that he interview the accused in the accuser’s presence.
Later, in Vere’s cabin, Claggart repeats the charge. Billy cannot defend himself: he is paralyzed by his stutter. All he can do is strike Claggart, but the blow kills the master-at-arms. The captain must hold a court martial immediately, his only option under the Articles of War. Billy pleads with Vere to save him, but he is sentenced to death. The sentence brings the ship to the brink of mutiny, but Billy tells the men, through Dansker, that death is his fate and asks them not to revolt. Billy is brought onto the main deck. Just before his execution, he praises his captain one last time, singing, “Starry Vere, God bless you!”
Vere, deeply disturbed by what he has recounted, knows that although he could have saved Billy, Billy has saved him. As he remembers Billy’s blessing, the old captain is at peace.