Central City Opera Artistic Director Pelham Pearce has wanted to stage Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, based on Herman Melville's novella, for sixteen years. This season, he and director Ken Cazan are finally doing it as part of the summer opera festival that runs through August 6 in the historic mining town.
The lineup also includes a production of Giacomo Puccini’s crowd-pleasing and racially troubling Madama Butterfly, which opened July 6; a double bill of “The Blessed Damozel” and “Litanies to the Black Virgin,” opening July 23; and Encore: A Musical Revue, on August 3 and August 6.
But the highlight of the season could well be Billy Budd. Why has it taken sixteen years to stage?
“It's a monster of a show,” explains Pearce. The robust score requires four times more string players than fit in the orchestra pit at Central City's Teller House, and for years the Britten estate held a clamp on the score, preventing smaller orchestras from playing it.
But since 2001, Richard Jarman, the now retired director of the Britten-Pears Foundation in the United Kingdom, had visited Central City for every production of a work by Britten and gained trust in CCO's ability to handle his work. A few years ago, when Pearce requested permission to modify the score for a smaller orchestra, Jarman and his team wondered who might be the best person to undertake the project. Pearce recommended Steuart Bedford, Britten's assistant, who knew his music and style better than anybody. The estate commissioned Bedford to reduce the score — and Central City Opera was poised for the premiere.
“Then time passed,” explains Pearce. “In the ensuing years since that was done, Des Moines used that production last year and somebody in Russia used it a year and a half ago. This isn't the first time it was used, but it's the first time it was used by the company it was intended for — which is us.”
Britten’s Billy Budd, with a libretto by British novelist E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, first premiered in 1951 and quickly found a home in theaters around the world.
The story is told from the perspective of Captain Vere, here played by tenor Daniel Norman, who looks back on his time commanding the British HMS Indomitable — a ship crewed by men who have given up their freedoms to serve the monarchy. One of those handpicked men, Billy Budd (performed by baritone Joshua Hopkins), is a handsome, smart and loyal worker with two flaws: a love of freedom and an occasional stammer. The whip-brandishing ship’s master-at-arms, John Claggart, played by bass Kevin Burdette, becomes obsessed with Budd, at once desiring, envying and fearing him, especially as he gains respect and friendship with both the crew and Vere. Claggart hatches a scheme to falsely accuse Budd of plotting a mutiny.
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When the trumped-up case is brought to Vere, Budd — unable to express himself through his stutter — accidentally strikes Claggart, killing him. Vere regretfully sets up a trial that ultimately leads to Budd’s hanging, per law, although all involved think it's an unjust sentence for a good man. And at the end, the dying Vere contemplates his own guilt in Budd’s execution.
The production — rife with all the homoeroticism that fifty seamen out on the ocean will inspire — explores the death penalty, power dynamics between the British aristocracy and working-class crew, erotic tensions in the ranks, and the gray area between the law and morality. For audiences, there’s plenty to contemplate and more to simply feel. And for actors, there’s nuance to each of the many roles — all played by men.
“It's right around fifty people,” says Pearce. “When the battle scene is going on, we have our regular apprentice men, plus an additional six apprentices this year, all men for this, plus a chorus from Denver of men, plus thirteen boys from the Colorado Children's Chorale, plus three principals and another row of secondary principals after that.”
Luckily for Pearce, all those men can sing.
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“Until they get here and open their mouths in the room, I'm never quite sure,” he says. “But they're really, really, really good singers, and they're really good at singing Britten, which is a special ability.”
Britten, who wrote lyric-driven, angular melodies inspired by his youth spent in the Anglican Church, composed songs notoriously challenging for singers who may have great voices but little in the way of literary appreciation.
“The written phrase is what drives it, so that always has to be the intent, and when you sing it that way, all of a sudden it makes perfect musical and grammatical sense,” explains Pearce. “There are a lot of people who understand that and a lot of people who don’t, and they just sing the notes and have a pretty voice. That’s not enough in this. You have to get this so you can deliver this in a way that makes perfect sense. We’ve got a whole cast of them this time, and it should blow the socks off of everybody who sees it."
Central City Opera's 2019 summer season runs through August 6 in Central City. For dates, pricing, tickets and more information, go to the Central City Opera website.