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Billy Budd

Innocence Must Be Destroyed


James Conlon leads the LA Opera Orchestra and Chorus for one of Benjamin Britten's most strikingly theatrical and grandly scaled masterpieces.

Based on Herman Melville’s classic American tale, adapted into a libretto by English novelist E.M. Forster and writer Eric Crozier, Billy Budd tells the story of the persecution and destruction of a pure-hearted sailor by a predatory master-at-arms. It's a tragedy of "sexual discharge gone evil," as Forster described it, and a work that has captivated audiences around the world since its 1951 world premiere.

Leading the all-male cast, baritone Liam Bonner returns for his role debut as Billy, with tenor Richard Croft as Captain Vere. Bass Greer Grimsley makes his LA Opera debut as Claggart, the master-at-arms maddened by Billy’s goodness and beauty. A spectacular production by Francesca Zambello returns to our stage for the first time in 14 years.

Click here to read the program. Click here to listen to James Conlon's pre-performance talk.

Produced in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (London) and the Paris Opera. This production was first seen at Covent Garden on May 30, 1995. 

Production made possible by generous funding provided from the
National Endowment for the Arts
and Britten-Pears Foundation.


There are currently no upcoming performances.


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.

Act One
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.

Act Two
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.


Two hours and 55 minutes, including one intermission.
Evening performances: 7:30-10:25pm (approximately)
Matinee performances: 2:00-4:55pm (approximately)

News & Reviews


  • Billy Budd

    LA Opera: February 10, 2014

    In this edition of LA Opera's Behind the Curtain podcast, Brian Lauritzen talks to Liam Bonner, who is performing the title role in Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd," a role debut for the baritone. They discuss how he prepares an operatic role for the first time, the musical and physical demands of the role of Billy, and what makes Britten a particularly great opera composer.
  • James Conlon on Benjamin Britten

    LA Opera: February 20, 2013

    Brian Lauritzen sits down with LA Opera Music Director James Conlon to discuss the musical legacy of composer Benjamin Britten whose 100th Birthday Celebrations have begun in Los Angeles and around the world. Conlon talks about Britten's compositional fluency in all genres of classical music, the dichotomy of his conservative religious beliefs and liberal political views and the challenges Britten faced as a gay man living in an intolerant society.
  • Billy Budd

    LA Opera: February 28, 2014

Pre-performance lectures are generously sponsored by the Flora L. Thornton Foundation and the Opera League of Los Angeles.


The Creation of "Billy Budd"

Watch a 1966 BBC Telecast of "Billy Budd"

Pre-Performance Talks

Get the full story by joining other opera-goers at our complimentary pre-opera talks in the Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. One hour before every performance of Billy Budd, LA Opera's acclaimed Music Director James Conlon will present an entertaining and informative talk on the opera. These talks are free of charge to everybody attending the performance, and no reservations are required.