In honor of gay composer Benjamin Britten's 100th birthday, LA Opera is reviving one of his most renowned works this month. Billy Budd, a homoerotic tale of intrigue set on the high seas, will run for six performances only February 22nd-March 16th at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
The 1951 opera explores the relationship between the title character, a handsome young sailor, and his ship's master-at-arms, John Claggart. Claggart's obsession with Billy leads to devastating tragedy. Britten was inspired by a novella written by Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame, and fellow gay writer E.M. Forster wrote the libretto to accompany Britten's acclaimed score.
32-year old baritone Liam Bonner will headline the production, with bass Greer Grimsley making his LA Opera debut as Billy's sexually frustrated nemesis. Bonner recently chatted with Reverend via e-mail.
REV: This is the first time you have played the role of Billy. What most excites you or intrigues you about the role or this opera?
LB: Billy is probably one of the furthest roles away from my own personality, so I'm really excited about pushing myself as an actor. I love his innocence and the way Britten sets Billy's words so simply. I feel fortunate that for the first time doing this role I have both Maestro James Conlon steering this ship musically as well as Francesca Zambello's production and experience with this piece.
REV: Has preparing for this role presented any unique demands or challenges for you?
LB: This role is known for having a certain "look" by its baritones. I'm tall and thin, but putting the muscle on for this role has honestly been the greatest challenge, and I'm still working on it.
REV: What about the gay or homoerotic aspects of the plot and opera? Any particular challenges or insights you'd like to share?
LB: The homoerotic aspects are certainly a driving force in this piece, but they have more to do with Claggart than Billy. Billy is too innocent and naïve, I think, to even realize the way Claggart is drawn to him. When Billy is being warned to watch out for Claggart, he honestly believes that Claggart is just being friendly to him and can't possibly imagine any ulterior motive. To quote Billy's argument: "But Jemmy Legs likes me. He calls me that sweet pleasant fellow. He gives me the smile and easy order when we meet. And when I gave Squeak that drubbing, 'handsomely done' was all he said... and he smiled. No, he likes me, he likes me." Billy is so real and so sincere in his answers, always.
REV: Any thoughts about or impressions of Benjamin Britten's works in general?
LB: One word: adore! Seriously, I think his skill as an opera composer is right there with Mozart and Verdi. It just depends on my mood which one I'd prefer to listen to at any particular moment. I've been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to perform many of Britten's operas (Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Sid in Albert Herring, Ned Keene in Peter Grimes) and I'm always blown away by his ability to set the English language as well as his understanding of drama; knowing what stories make great operas and need to be sung because saying the words just isn't enough.
REV: You are counted among the current "barihunks," i.e. hot male opera singers. How do you feel about that designation?
LB: Well, they say there's no such thing as bad press so I'm happy to have the recognition, but I suppose I don't feel like I belong on the list based on what I understand as the qualifying requirements.
REV: I read you once played the Witch in Engelbert Humperdinck's classic Hansel and Gretel. Is that role traditionally played by a male? If not, how were you cast in it?
LB: Yes, usually the role is played by a male, specifically a character tenor, and then also performed by mezzos (or an aging soprano). I'm not aware of another baritone having sung the role. For this particular production at Houston Grand Opera, the costume was designed by director and puppeteer Basil Twist and was built by the Jim Henson Company. The requirement for the singer was to basically be inside this 15-foot puppet and manipulate it like a puppeteer while singing the role. The original singer had some issue with heights and was unable to move forward with the piece. I was in the Studio at the time and singing the role of the Father. Former HGO General Director, Anthony Freud, and former Head of Music Staff, Kathleen Kelly, discussed their options and realized that I had sung the role of Eisenstein in college, a role that shared the same tessitura with the Witch. Kathy called me up, asked me to come in and sing through the role for her, asked me how it felt afterward, and the rest is history. It's still, to this day, one of my favorite performing memories. I had a blast!
REV: Where do you hail from originally? Where do you call home today?
LB: I'm originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (proud Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins fan) and spent the first 22 years of my life there as I attended Carnegie Mellon University for my undergraduate work. Currently, I make my home base in Houston, Texas where I fell in love with the city from my years in the Houston Grand Opera Studio.
REV: Anything else you want people to know about yourself or this production?
LB: This will actually be my second time working on Billy Budd, as I first performed the role of Lieutenant Redburn my final year in the Houston Grand Opera Studio. However, it is a different production.
Additional information about LA Opera's production of Billy Budd and ticket availability may be found at their website or by calling (213) 972-8001.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.