Billy Budd, July 2008 Santa Fe Opera Billy Budd is set on an English battleship in the Napoleonic Wars. Billy Budd was pressed into service, but seems to thrive on it. He is cheerful, patriotic, hardworking, and, generally good. This annoys the hell out of John Claggart, the ship's Master at Arms (read police chief). He is a nasty bit of work who prefers that everybody else be primarily motivated by fear of him and his minions. He finds this much more satisfactory than all this junk about patriotism, friendship, and loyalty. Billy Budd's increasing popularity among the crew throws a spanner in his works, and he conspires to do him in.

(The singer portraying Claggart did a really excellent job. Somewhat overblown, of course, as is all opera, but still a believably nasty guy. Ever notice how the villains make much better drama than somebody who is all sweetness and light? Richard II is much more dramatic than Henry V, and Iago trumps them both.)

So Claggart frames Billy on the charge of fomenting a mutiny. Captain Vere is not much inclined to believe him, and has the two of them to his cabin to have it out. Claggart makes his charges, and Captain Vere asks Billy to answer them. In moments of stress Billy is susceptible to stuttering, and is unable to get a word out. In his frustration at being unable to defend himself, Billy strikes Claggart on the forehead with his fist, killing him.

Both striking a superior and murder are capital crimes, under the articles of war, and Captain Vere feels he must convene a Court Martial. The court martial is bound by the facts of the case, and cannot consider extenuating circumstances. Billy pleads to the captain to intervene and save him, but the captain, though he recognizes the right of the case, feels duty bound to let it proceed. Billy is sentenced to hang. It is only at this point that Billy's essential goodness becomes apparent to the listener. He understands that he has broken the rules in a time of war, and begs his friends not to try to rescue him or to demonstrate in his favor. When the time comes, his last words are "God bless Captain Vere." Here, as in the book of Job, the way of God with the world transcends human understanding, and both Billy and Captain Vere (in an epilogue) look forward to a future life, in which it will all make sense.

The opera, by Benjamin Britten, is, of course, based on the book by Herman Melville. It is, I think, an improvement (I read the book several decades ago, so I could be a little wrong there.) Billy's goodness in the first act is not as well transmitted by dialogue as by the description in the book, but the drama from the court martial on is really intensified by the music, and the opera, unlike the book makes Captain Vere into somebody who is completely conscious of what he is doing.

Melville's book is based, very, very loosely on an actual incident. This incident is really quite different, but also very, very sad. It occurred on the brig Somers in the American navy, not an English battleship. The Billy Budd character was an ensign, not an able seaman, and was seventeen years old, or thereabouts. He was drawn in by a couple of hard bitten and reprehensible old sea dogs, who where plotting a mutiny. They were interested in the young ensign because of his ability to read maps, which they lacked. The three were overheard plotting, and the captain, quite rightly, had them cast in irons stapled to the after rail. The rest of the crew rather thought he had gone overboard in the treatment of the ensign, who was, after all, just a kid. When the captain overheard the crew muttering, he lost it. In a panic that a full-scale mutiny might be imminent, He convened a court martial, and beat on them until they found the three guilty of mutiny, and hung them from the yard arm, with the officers standing with drawn swords to cut down any crew member who objected, sympathized, or even failed to lend a hand on the whiplines that raised them. A sad and unnecessary set of deaths; there is little question that they ship could have safely returned to Baltimore and handed the conspirators to the proper tribunal. "Billy Budd's" life would have been scarred by his criminality. but not over. (Actually, I'm strongly in favor of the juvenile justice code of today, wherein a single misstep is forgotten if the threshold to adulthood is otherwise successfully crossed.)

My sympathies go out to Captain Bligh, who was the object of a major mutiny, but one in which no lives were lost. A good mariner, but perhaps a rather strict disciplinarian.

So that is the way a major novelist works, converting a sad, tawdry and very human affair into a confrontation between good and evil, taking place in the miniature world of a warship. Each art form has its own conventions. Opera is not a novel, and a novel is not historiography. Each can be accepted on its own terms. The fact that I prefer documentaries and opera to most novels and movies is a personal quirk, not a claim that one form of conventions is better than another.