The entire drama unfolds simultaneously in a space enclosed and claustrophobic (a British war ship) and infinite (the ocean upon which it sails). The ship, with its crew, is cut off from the world and becomes a microcosm of humanity, with good and evil, strong and weak, powerful and powerless. The ocean and the skies suggest the boundless elements of spirituality and eternity.
A universe within the universe, it touches upon Britten’s recurrent themes: outrage for the destruction—not just the loss—of innocence; the abdication by civil authorities of their moral authority to the detriment of the weak; and the importance of compassion and its lamentable absence in the affairs of men.
This is the first of Britten’s four theatrical works with an exclusively male cast. It marks the composer’s return to “grand” opera, after the chamber operas The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring. It restores the extensive orchestra to its prior place, with a large chorus and some 20 solo roles. It is the second of three operas, along with Peter Grimes and Death in Venice, that play out in or around the powerful influence of the sea. It is the biggest of his large-scale works.
This presentation of Billy Budd marks the culminating event of Britten 100/LA. In the past three years, LA Opera has presented three mainstage productions of Britten operas. Through the collaboration of over 90 partners, Los Angeles has hosted one of the largest testimonies to one of the 20th century’s most prolific geniuses and the man who brought the English language back into the mainstream of classical music.
On a personal level, I have devoted much energy and attention to conducting his works around the world this year. This devotion is a small musical offering to a prolific composer whose contribution was colossal and will live on in the future.