Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Billy Budd (an opera review post)

Here we are at the beginning of a new opera season, and, man, is there going to be a lot to talk about. As I mentioned, last week was a shitty week, but we were having our first opera and were really looking forward to it as a break from the shitstorm at home. [No, I’m probably not going to quit making shit jokes anytime soon. I mean, I’m still cleaning up shit stains in the bathtubs, so it’s not like I’m going to get past it right away.] After all, we love the opera! We’re always looking forward to getting back to it after the summer break.

However, the first opera on our schedule was Billy Bud, and my wife was feeling a bit trepidatious about it. I suppose that’s understandable; however, I was looking forward to it, being a Melville fan, so to speak, and seeing how it had been adapted from the… I don’t know what Billy-Bud-the-Melville-story is categorized as. I’ve always thought of it as a short story (it’s been a long time since I’ve read it), but the guy doing the pre-opera talk kept referring to it as a novella. I don’t remember it being long enough to be a novella, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. At any rate, the pre-opera speaker was so enthusiastic about the opera that, by the end of the talk, my wife was looking forward to it.

What we both should have learned by now, though, is that we really just do not like modern operas.
Let me make it clear before I continue that the term “modern” here has to do with a style and is not referring to when it was written. Of course, knowing that it’s “modern” also tells you that it was written within the last century since the modern style developed in the early 20th century sometime (I’d tell you exactly when, but I’m working away from the internet (I know! Right? It’s weird!), so you’re stuck with the stuff that’s already in my head). Billy Bud debuted in 1951.

Now, for a long time, I’ve held the Usher opera up as my standard for worst opera, and it probably still holds that position, but it’s now a close call. We actually left Billy Budd before it was over. That's never happened before but, yes, it was that “modern.” Budd does have some redeeming moments, musically, but it’s also incredibly long, more than three hours. Usher was the length of act one of Budd, so it, at least, had its brevity going for it. What I can say is that I would never want to sit through either of these again. It wouldn’t surprise me if the devil is taking notes so that he knows what opera rooms to lock me in in Hell.

So... Why was Billy Budd so goddamn awful?
You know all of those things that I've mentioned in previous opera posts that are things that are wrong with opera? Well, all of those things are in this opera.
Before I go on, I want to say two things:
1. Evidently, the critics loved Budd. We always look up reviews on our way home from the operas we see, and Budd had pretty excellent reviews. I have to think this is one of those occasions where critics "like" something because they think it makes them more sophisticated than everyone else. Like wine snobs liking to drink shit-tasting wine because it's expensive. Or whatever.
2. I say that about critics because Billy Budd was the most lightly attended opera we've ever been to. There were no other people on our row with us, only two in the row below us, and only a few people behind us. It was like a matinee performance of a mediocre movie.

Did Billy Budd have droning, non-melodic music?
Was the performed completely recitative?
Did Billy Budd have performers who just stood in place while they sang?

Just to expand on those thoughts a bit:
The music did have a few -- it seems incorrect to call them "high points," but there were some bits that were better than others -- less bad parts. Because it's a sailing story, Britten wrote some parts that resembled sea shanties. Those bits of music when the all of the sailors were doing shanty bits were not quite good, they also weren't exactly bad. Other than the shanties, the entire opera is done recitative, including a "monologue" from the villain about how evil he is which must have lasted at least 20 minutes.
To make matters worse, there's no action during any of this. When the villain sang his song, the stage was darkened with just a spot on him while he stood there and droned on about being a bad guy. Even during the big "battle" scene, the sailors just stand on stage and sing about it.
And to make matters even worse, there are sections, long sections, when the performers just stand in place on stage while the music... well, while it does whatever it's doing. It felt like parts of watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture, except without any cosmic yawn to watch.

By the time we'd gotten to the intermission, my wife was ready to go. I never would have imagined that we'd find an opera she wanted to leave. I was hesitant, though, because... well, you know me, I hate to quit things. If you've been around for a while, you know the kinds of books I'll make myself finish reading, no matter how torturous they are.

So we stayed.

As soon as act two started, though, I began regretting it. So I made decision:
There's a murder that takes place in the story, so I decided I would give it till the murder so I could see how they handled that. Could they manage to put some action into this thing with the murder? If so, maybe it would be worth staying through the ending.
Ah... But no... The "murder" amounted to the one guy punching the other guy in the face (yeah, I'm keeping it vague in case you haven't read the story (and maybe you don't want to, now, after hearing all of this, but you shouldn't let a mishandled opera keep you away from the source material)) and managing to kill him that way. That was it. The entire piece of action in the whole opera, one punch to the face boiled down from a scene of rage and loss of control in the story.

So I leaned over and told my wife we could leave. That that was the highlight of the whole opera and that it wasn't going to get better.

We left.

Remember, this was supposed to be our enjoyable evening away from all the shit at home. All of the literal shit at home, which we drove back to to find the kids angry about the plumbing situation. I couldn't really blame them, but it wasn't the best thing to come home to.
At least there was the pleasure from finding a thing that my wife and I can hate on together. That was her thought, but it's true. It's great to like something together or to hate something together; it's never much fun when only one of us likes something.
But we don't want to ever see Billy Budd again.


  1. 20th century music, in general, can be tough, especially with a composer like Britten. I'd say it's an acquired taste but even that is oversimplifying since, even within the weird, there's a lot of variety. Somewhere along the line, though, the art music world lost its connection with the audience. They were composing more for each other than for the masses. The problem has its origin with Wagner, I think.

    Anyway, sorry this one didn't work for you. That said, I am excited for more opera reviews.

    I did appreciate the Star Trek reference.

    1. TAS: Yeah, I know Wagner started all this mess. Knowing that actually caused my wife a LOT of hesitation on seeing The Ring Cycle. However, that was excellent. He was really a master of arias and motifs and that made everything else he did work. All the guys after him clearly did not have his skill.

      I thought you'd like that.

    2. Wagner saw opera as the great synthesis of all the arts: dance, theatre, music, literature, art and architecture. Love him or hate him, there's no denying his stature or his impact on everyone who came after him. Mark Twain said it best: "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

    3. TAS: I have very mixed feelings about Wagner, mostly because I don't know much about him, personally, something I should rectify. What I know is that the Nazis loved him. And The Ring Cycle is a masterpiece.
      It's difficult.

  2. Man, you just were not having any luck that day.