San Francisco Opera presents Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’

San Francisco Opera’s production of Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The new San Francisco Opera season continues this weekend with Benjamin Britten’s powerful and turbulent work, Billy Budd. Written for an all-male cast of 75 artists, this production of Herman Melville’s dramatic sea-faring tale features tenor William Burden, baritone John Chest and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn. Dutch-Maltese conductor Lawrence Renes leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, 44 male members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus (directed by Ian Robertson) and eight members of the Ragazzi Boys Chorus. The director is Tony Award-winning Michael Grandage.

Christian Van Horn as John Claggart in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Billy Budd is the second of Benjamin Britten’s ‘grand operas’ (the first having been Peter Grimes) and once again was no doubt inspired by the North Sea – of which he had a fine view from his home in Aldeburgh, on the East Anglian coast. Britten based Billy Budd on the unfinished novella by American novelist, short story writer and poet Herman Melville, well known for his novels about the sea, Moby Dick in particular. These performances at San Francisco Opera coincide with the Melville bicentennial and the 100th anniversary of the discovery of his manuscript of Billy Budd. The book was written in 1891, posthumously published in 1924, and the definitive version issued in 1962.

Brenton Ryan as a Novice and John Chest as the title role in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

With a libretto by E M Forster and Eric Crozier, Britten’s opera – related in a series of flashbacks – tells of a naïve young sailor, Billy Budd, on board the 18th century warship HMS Indomitable, who accidentally kills the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart. The captain of the vessel, Captain Vere, is faced with the decision of sparing Billy’s life or abiding by naval law which decreed that he should be hanged. Vere ultimately gives in to the law, but he is haunted by his decision for the rest of his life.

Britten himself conducted the premiere of Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on December 1st 1951.

Christian Van Horn as John Claggart and William Burden as Captain Vere in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’ © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

William Burden, a graduate of the Merola Opera Program, has appeared in a number of San Francisco Opera productions, the most recent of which was Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life, in which he sang the role of George Bailey. According to the New York Times, “Subdued emotional intensity permeates every line of Mr. Burden’s elegant singing”.

John Chest, in the title role, makes his Company debut in this production. Another graduate of the Merola Opera Program, he was the 2010 winner of the Stella Maris International Vocal Competition, a finalist in the 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, and has recently been awarded a Richard Tucker Music Foundation Career Grant. He first sang the role of Billy Budd as a member of the ensemble at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Gramophone describes his voice as “…. both beautiful and immediately engaging, virile but distinguished by an appealing vulnerability and urgent catch in the timbre”.

John Chest as Billy Budd and Edward Nelson as Bosun in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn – who sings the role of the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart – is a frequent guest at San Francisco Opera, his most recent appearance having been in the role of Zoroastro in Handel’s Orlando this past summer. The 2018 Richard Tucker Award is one of the many awards Mr Van Horn has received, he has performed in most of the major opera houses in the world, and he also recently appeared in the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of Falstaff. Opera News refers to his “… firm, elegantly deployed bass-baritone ….”, and his “… intelligent, self-possessed performing style …”.

Michael Grandage’s production of Billy Budd was first performed at the 2010 Glyndebourne Festival, and revived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014. “Britten has this brilliant capacity to conjure up the huge, surging sound of the sea through the orchestra,” he says. “Therefore, I wanted to leave the sea to the orchestra and focus on creating the claustrophobic, violent, capricious shipboard world that these characters inhabit.”

John Chest in the title role in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Lawrence Renes, formerly Music Director of the Royal Swedish Opera, is an enthusiastic champion of the contemporary repertoire, and is particularly associated with the music of John Adams. He led productions of Nixon in China at San Francisco Opera, and Doctor Atomic at both English National Opera and De Nederlandse Opera. Among other companies with whom he has appeared are the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and the Stockholm and Hong Kong philharmonic orchestras.

San Francisco Opera’s Billy Budd is sung in English with English supertitles, and runs at the War Memorial Opera House for six performances, until September 22nd. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Opera website.

Tomorrow, the stars of San Francisco Opera’s 2019 Fall Season, in concert with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, will appear in the San Francisco Chronicle Opera in the Park. This annual al fresco event, held at Robin Williams Meadow in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, is free and open to the public. For more information, visit

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Opera program notes

Britten-Pears Foundation

William Burden

John Chest

Christian Van Horn

Lawrence Renes

ArtsPreview home page

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