Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Billy Budd gay subtext ?

Last month I wrote about the gay subtext in Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. " A homosexual story". Note the quotation marks, read the context.

Now all over the web, there;'s discussion of Billy Budd and homoeroticism. Read Parterre Box's piece "Closet Drama", especially the comments, which are very pertinent. Sure there's a gay subtext in Billy Budd. But it's one-dimensional to think that's the whole story. No wonder the "London correspondent" can't get the opera. Britten's music expresses moree than the text implies.

The thing about Billy Budd is that it's a  dilemma, like the fog that descends on the Indomitable and stops it moving ahead. If the answers were easy, why does Captain Vere spend the rest of his life agonizing about what Billy meant?  Neither Vere nor Britten were coy. The Navy was notoriously "Rum, sodomy and the lash". That's why they had to pressgang sailors. Which is why Billy, who likes the open seas, stands out.  But that says nothing about his sexuality. He isn't the hero of this opera, not even a hero at all. He simply "is", which is why everyone projects onto him. Only a truly exceptional singer like Jacques Imbrailo for Glyndebourne can really develop the part, and his interpretation was that Billy represented goodness in its purest form, which few people really understand. That's why Billy is "Beauty". His sexuality is immaterial, for his world is above the decks and the infernal hull, up the top of sails, in the (relative) freedom of wind and sky, and he's happy just to be who he is, without much complication.

The Navy is an institution which predicates on regulation, mindlessly enforced. Captain Vere follows rules, so Billy dies. He knows, and Billy knows, and the men know, that Vere as Captain can break rules but doesn't. So he grows old, unable to find peace. The seamen don't revolt because they, too, are institutionalized.  Novice suffers because he's beaten so badly he can't walk. Once he was clever but now his dreams of a better life are lost and he becomes a snitch. He's one of Britten's numerous innocents, destroyed by the sick world around him.
Benjamin Britten knew a lot about institutions that brutalize those within them. One day, perhaps, someone will stage Billy Budd in a minor public school, with teachers as officers and boys as seamen. Also remember that Britten was a pacifist, and also one of the first people to enter Belsen Bergen after it was liberated. And, while Billy Budd was being written, Senator McCarthy's witchhunts were raging, affecting many who Britten knew. No way is Britten going to miss out on the brutal nature of institutions and the cruelty they generate. Billy Budd is a critique of society. Captain Vere is the hero of this drama because he's the one who faces up to the fact that he could have made a difference but didn't. Miss the fundamental moral dilemmas in this opera and we might as well watch Popeye the Sailor Man, which is a damn sight more brutal than it seemed when we were kids.

We wail and rage at directors who latch onto one detail in an opera and miss the wider picture. It's not a crime. But until we ourselves know an opera well enough to understand its complexities, we're doing the same thing.

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