Celebrating Britten in Sweden, with Billy Budd

billy-budd-250bOver the years, many authors have set out to write the Great American Novel. How many have succeeded is a matter for debate. But one novelist who certainly had the credentials was Herman Melville, author of what some might consider THE Great American Novel, Moby-Dick.

Melville's work suffered from decreasing popularity while he was alive, and after his death in 1891 his work was largely forgotten for more than 30 years. But in the 1920's there was a Melville revival. It was spurred on, at least in part, by the appearance of a short novel left unpublished when Melville died, a work called Billy Budd, Sailor.

By now, of course, Melville is considered a literary titan. His works have been analyzed for their contribution to all manner of literary trends -- including existentialism and absurdism -- and for their forward-looking examination of still-touchy social issues, including race-relations, gender identification and sexuality. Yet, despite the complexity of Melville's works -- in both their content and their style -- he was also a great story teller. To see that, and to hear it, we need look no further than this week's opera.

In 1951, Benjamin Britten took Melville's novella and turned it into a remarkable drama that exploits all the different and contrasting aspects of theoriginal. It's a seagoing struggle between good and evil; a moody swashbuckler with a rousing story, and thrilling action scenes; and a complex psychodrama exploring nearly every aspect of human relationships -- in ways that are both richly rewarding and deeply troubling.

The opera was premiered in London, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1951. Together with Britten's earlier hit, Peter Grimes, the score is among the finest and most popular operas ever composed based on maritime stories and themes -- while also exploiting complex societal issues that remain starkly relevant even today.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Britten's Billy Budd in a new production from the Göteborg Opera in Sweden, launched in celebration of Britten's 100th birthday. The composer was born in the seaside town of Lowestoft, England, in November of 1913. The stars are baritone Joa Helgesson as Billy, tenor Mathias Zachariasson as Captain Vere, and bass Clive Bayley as John Claggart.