Blog written by Michael Egel, General & Artistic Director:
“This is our moment, the moment we’ve been waiting for!” So exclaims the entire cast of sailors and naval officers near the beginning of Act II of Benjamin Britten’s epical opera Billy Budd as the mists finally lift over the rough sea so the H.M.S. Indomitable can earnestly begin its pursuit of a long-elusive enemy French ship. It’s a refrain that has often played through my mind numerous times since we first began planning to produce this incredible work several years ago. And as we get closer to our opening night on July 1, it seems to increase in frequency and eager anticipation. Though the title of this opera may have some familiarity to opera goers and bibliophiles alike, performances of this 20th century masterpiece are actually very rare. In the United States, only a handful of our largest opera companies possess the necessary resources to successfully meet the enormous demands of this score. Demands that include enormous orchestral forces, numerous principal artists, a 40 plus voiced all-male chorus and a stage configuration that translates naturally into the shape of British Naval ship of the 18th century.
Des Moines Metro Opera created a plan to meet these demands starting in 2014. The first step was to grapple with the orchestral forces by working with the Britten/Pears Foundation and Boosey & Hawkes to create a performing version of moderately reduced forces. Steuart Bedford, one of Benjamin Britten’s closest associates during his lifetime and one of our last living links to the composer, had been anxious to create an orchestration of this work that would take the opera out of the exclusive provinces of the world’s largest theatres and to make it accessible for more companies to produce. All he needed was permission and an opera company that would take it on. DMMO was happy to oblige and Bedford began his process of reducing a score that originally called for four woodwind players per section down to triple players and also paring down the percussion section from ten players to seven. His completed score was made available to Maestro Neely and the DMMO music staff last August. As a festival company, our roster of principal artists lends itself to large cast shows. Meeting the choral demands of the opera is easier for DMMO than it might be for other regional companies because of our Apprentice Artist Program, which will increase by four males voices this year for a total of 44, supplemented by numerous auxiliary choristers from the community. Young men from the Heartland Youth Chorus will add their voices to this nautical juggernaut making for a cast that numbers well past 60 men’s voices on stage all at the same time. The opportunity to participate in this infrequently performed opera proved to be a potent lure for principal artists and apprentice men as our auditions applications hit very high numbers this fall.
Billy Budd was commissioned by the Arts Council for the 1951 Festival of Britain, but the idea to turn Herman Melville’s nautical novella into an opera had been in Britten’s mind for many years, dating back to the premier of Peter Grimes in 1945. For the text, Britten chose to work with one of Britain’s foremost literary figures, E.M. Forster (A Room With a View, Howard’s End, Maurice). Britten gravitated towards the stories of “innocents” throughout his compositional career. He empathized with stories of an outsider who is positioned apart from a tightly-knit community, either through their actions or by nature of who they are. We also know from Peter Grimes that the metaphorical and musical possibilities that sea-faring stories presented to Britten was hard for him to resist. In the case of Billy Budd, the drama is delivered with remarkable directness. Here the master-at-arms, John Claggart, represents evil while Budd himself represents good. Positioned between them is the pivotal character of Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, under whose jurisdiction and authority these two forces of good and evil will powerfully and tragically collide.
Given our long history with the works of Benjamin Britten, we are proud to present this new edition as a part of the 45th Anniversary celebration. Some will remember that our first season began with Albert Herring in 1973 so it seems right to return to the most important opera composer of the 20th century to mark this occasion. Our premiere this summer will feature new sets and costumes in a production led by popular dream-team Maestro David Neely and stage director Kristine McIntyre. Baritone Craig Verm returns to sing the title role, a role he seems vocally and physically designed to perform! Our Peter Grimes from 2013, Roger Honeywell will take on the role of Captain Vere and rising young bass Zachary James will inhabit the role of Claggart in a chilling way. The large cast includes a number of artists I’ve been excited to introduce such as veteran Thomas Hammons, Federico De Michelis, Emmett O’Hanlon and Timothy Bruno as well as numerous returning artists such as Kristopher Irmiter (The Girl of the Golden West 2015), Michael Adams (Manon 2016), Steve Sanders (The Girl of the Golden West 2015) and the long awaited return of baritone Dennis Jesse whose performances between 2001-2006 remain favorites for many audience members.
I’ve waited a long time to present this work to you and I hope you won’t miss it. This is indeed our moment, and it has certainly been worth waiting for!