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Britten’s masterful operatic take on Melville’s tale of the clash between good and evil returns to the Met in John Dexter’s classic production. Baritone Joshua Hopkins stars as the innocent Billy Budd, wrongly accused of mutiny by the malevolent master-at-arms Claggart, performed by bass Matthew Rose. Star tenor Matthew Polenzani is Captain Vere, the honest commander forced to decide Billy’s fate. Conductor Simone Young leads the cast.
Languages sung in Billy Budd
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Timeline for the show, Billy Budd
Estimated Run Time
3 hrs 12 mins
World Premiere: London, Royal Opera House, 1951 (original four-act version)/1964 (revised version)
An adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella, Billy Budd is one of the most gripping and successful operas of the 20th century. Set almost entirely aboard a British warship, the drama is a stark morality play about the inherent difficulty of recognizing the difference between good and evil. The motivations of the lead characters are compelling on a variety of levels—from the clinically psychological to the abstractly philosophical—and Britten’s score masterfully pulls together all the multiple strands, resulting in an opera that is as theatrically convincing as it is intellectually and philosophically engaging.
British-born Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) was a leading composer in a wide variety of genres, and several of his operas are among the most enduring of the 20th century. Among his many outstanding librettists was novelist E.M. Forster (1879–1970), whose collaboration on Billy Budd remained his sole foray into opera. The libretto was co-written by Eric Crozier (1914–1994), an author and director who also worked with Britten on several of his other operas.
SET AND COSTUME DESIGNER
With the exceptions of the brief prologue and epilogue, the opera takes place in the year 1797 aboard the British warship HMS Indomitable. The historical context is important: Britain was at war with France, whose armies, under Napoleon Bonaparte, appeared invincible at that point. Only the British navy stood between the French and an invasion of Britain.
Britten’s score employs the scale and many of the techniques of traditional grand opera, but within a distinctly modern idiom. The foremost challenge was to create the necessary aural variety in the large, all-male cast. The orchestra helps bring out different shades in the vocal lines: the character of the Novice is associated with the plaintive sound of the saxophone, while Claggart is introduced by gruff tubas and timpani. Perhaps most extraordinary in Britten’s portrayal of this hermetic society are the ensembles and choruses.