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Billy Budd

by Tom Reed, Chorus

Willy Decker's sizzling production of Benjamin Britten's acclaimed opera "Billy Budd" opened Sunday at the San Francisco Opera. The Herman Melville novel upon which the opera is based ever so subtly hints at suppressed eroticism; so subtly as to escape the attention of most readers of the time. Britten noticed, however. While his opera may be set on the open sea, one could say that the real action takes place just below the surface, if one is willing to go snorkeling. But Willy Decker's production has blown the doors right off Davy Jones' locker. If Melville hints, and Britten suggests, then Decker downright insists! In fact, if you're looking for the ship that dare not speak its name, this Budd's for you!!

In a brief prologue, Captain Vere reminisces about his days long ago commanding the H.M.S. Indomitable, and a certain young sailor. Act One flashes back to the French wars of 1797 where a younger Vere and his crew hope to engage the enemy in battle. A cutter has been dispatched to "board a passing merchantman" where they "pick up" three sailors, one of them being young Billy Budd, the role sung by baritone knockout Nathan "Gunn." From the moment Billy sets foot onboard, Master-At-Arms Claggart can't take his eyes off him. Billy, handsome and anxious to please, quickly becomes quite popular. His only failing is a "speech impediment." Yeah.

All hands scramble onto the deck to pull the ropes and hoist the sails. The ropes must of course appear to be taut. Just so you know, with ninety-five choristers and supers on stage and only a handful of stage crew pulling back from the offstage side, our labors must only be simulated in order to avoid dragging the stagehands onto the set. But as one of those lucky choristers, I can tell you that if the pulling is faked, the tension on those ropes is definitely not! Having to repeatedly run offstage through an exit that's too small, and pull your way back onto an over-crowded set with no place to step except on the feet of your colleagues, while at the same time fighting to see the conductor and sing a rhythmically tricky sequence of "heaves," does tend to make the tension on those ropes real!

The crew warns Billy that Claggart is out to get him, but Billy is only interested in Captain Vere, whom he says he will follow forever. That night after a flogging, the crew throws a festive party on deck, hosted by Bikini Boy, the crew's resident cross-dresser. While the men sing about "sailing off to Gibraltar in only a halter" Corporal Squeak accuses Billy of "throttling" him, and things quickly turn vicious. As Squeak lunges, someone shouts, "Look out! He's got a WIFE!!!" Or was it "knife"? Whatever. Everyone recoils in horror. But Billy gains the upper hand and emerges triumphant from the scuffle. Distracted by shirtless Billy's enormous pecs, Claggart tells him to take a pride in his dress. Billy finds this a bit odd since he's actually wearing a pair of low-cut white cotton duck bellbottoms, with hip-hugging waist cinch, button-down front flap, brushed silver buttons, and distressed leather pumps. But who is he to question the fantasies of a superior officers? Billy heads below deck in search of a better outfit. Meanwhile the flat-chested and unpopular Claggart could just pee with envy. So he starts dissing Billy at every turn, even to the Captain. However Vere, better known to the crew as "Starry," won't hear anything bad about "Beauty" Budd. Yeah.

Exhausted from a day of flogging, frolicking, and endless exiting and reentering, the chorus squashes once more offstage to sing "Over The Water," a haunting little ditty that is made all the more poignant by the fact that exiting a ship at sea via the starboard bow does indeed put one literally over the water.

A few days later (Act Two) a lookout spots a French vessel several miles off the starboard bow. The Indomitable gives chase. Red Whiskers and Danskers volunteer to join the party that will be the first to board the French vessel in the smoky battle. While the chorus grumbles something about boredom in the smoke, a voice is heard from high overhead. It's Billy. He wants to party too! Now everyone gets in the mood. With the tenors cheering and pointing up to Billy in the rigging, the rest of the chorus is surprised to see Billy walk on stage down left. No matter. Everything's set for the big battle.

The captain gives orders to load the cannon. Working themselves to a fever pitch the crew crushes repeatedly offstage and back on through the narrow, funnel-shaped exit as officers shout orders, powder monkeys dart about dispensing ammunition, and sailors scramble in every direction in a chaotic frenzy unlike anything since the big party scene in La Traviata. To simulate the firing of the cannon offstage, huge speakers were set up in the wings next to an enormous flash pot filled with flash powder – the stuff the old cameras used to use before the invention of flashbulbs. The order is given to fire and the chorus crushes offstage toward the cannon shouting "HURRAAAaaaaaaaah!" just as the blinding flash goes off in our faces. Dazed and unable to see, we squeeze toward the mushroom cloud, squash through the narrow exit and grope our way down the treacherous offstage ramp in the dark, all the while singing and squinting desperately at the monitor located conveniently next to two glaring spotlights, only to have to turn right around and shove our way back onstage where they inform us that we MISSED! I don't need to tell you that we're not at all pleased. Then the fog comes in, the French ship escapes, and we have to exit AGAIN! This time the principals have to threaten us before we'll squash ourselves back onto that ramp.

Meanwhile Claggart chooses the wrong time to needle Billy about his speech impediment, and Billy bitch-slaps him dead.... right in front of the Captain. Pity! Billy gets a court-martial. Now what is Vere going to do? He'd like to be lenient and overlook Billy's silly little mistake. After all, boys will be boys. But if he isn't strict with Billy, what will people think? Vere wouldn't want anyone to get the "wrong" impression. Nooooo. So he leaves Billy's fate up to the officers, assuming that they will just slap him on the wrist. Well, guess what. The officers wouldn't want anyone to get the "wrong" impression either! So they do the butch thing. They decide to hang him from the yardarm. Poor Billy. This cruise has turned out to be the pits!

The chorus isn't amused about being dragged back to the stage yet again, even for a hanging, and the grumbling finally breaks out into open rebellion. The principals manage to force us upstage and quell the mutiny, but there's no way they can make us go down that infernal exit ramp again! They have to end the act by bring in the blackout curtain.

The epilogue takes us back to the present, where Vere, now retired, is still going on and on about Billy. In fact he's been at it for three hours! But he claims to be older and wiser now, and completely over it. Yeah. Sure, honey. Whatever you say.