Placido Domingo and the homoerotic “Billy Budd”


By Cris Franco

Under the leadership of opera legend Placido Domingo, Los Angeles Opera will be concluding its yearlong tribute to master composer Benjamin Britten’s 100 year birthday with a splendid production of Billy Budd at the Ahmanson Therater in Los Angeles.  “The Britten centenary has inspired so many wonderful performances of Benjamin Britten’s music,” commented the smiling Domingo.

Born in Spain, but raised and initiating his operatic training in Mexico, Domingo has spent his life bringing world-class music to his worldwide audiences as an singer/actor, conductor and producer.  This production of Billy Budd will follow his roster of theatrical excellence, boasting a cadre of renowned singers and designers that will bring to life Britten’s masterwork sung in English with English supertitles.

Based on Herman Melville’s novel by the same name, Billy Budd was adapted into a libretto by English novelist E.M. Forster and writer Eric Crozier who were drawn to the dark tale’s exploration of how mankind’s carnal desire and spiritual corruption can conspire to destroy the innocence of “Billy” at the hands of a vulturous master-at-arms named Claggart.  It’s a heartbreaking tragedy of “sexual discharge gone evil,” said Forster, and a psycho-sensual work that has enthralled audiences since its 1951 world premiere.

Liam Bonner as Bill Budd & Matthew O’Niell (with knife) Photo: Robert Millard

Britten held a personal fervor for this opera for its gay subject matter.  (The composer himself was gay and lived as “out” as a person could be during an era when homosexual acts were punishable by British law as criminal.)  The covert attraction Claggart senses towards the new young sailor Billy takes place in a wholly male environment aboard the HMS Indomitable during the French Revolutionary War in the late 18th Century.  It is apparent that although Claggart never openly expresses any carnal intentions towards Billy, that desire clearly exists.

E.M. Forster, who penned Howards End and A Passage to India, addressed the many questions presented by the opera’s libretto in various writings and lectures regarding the piece, which drew public attention (and some outrage) at its outset.  Forster, who was also gay, was of the mind that Claggart’s homoerotic attraction to Billy should be openly expressed within the opera’s text.  And he often challenged the composer for them to do so.  However, Britten would not alter their approach to the story, inferring that it would be a more compelling experience if the audience were allowed to decide for themselves the characters’ intentions and allowed to “read between the notes”.

This daring L.A. Opera production will explore the homoerotic sexual tension via muscular and fearless staging.  Both chorus and principals will have moments where their primal emotions surface in an overt manner.  This is the Billy Budd for the 21st century.

Photo:  Robert Millard
Photo: Robert Millard

Leading Los Angeles Opera’s all-male Billy Budd cast is baritone Liam Bonner who returns for his role debut as Billy, with tenor Richard Croft as Captain Vere. Bass Greer Grimsley makes his LA Opera debut as Claggart, the master-at-arms maddened by Billy’s goodness and beauty. This spectacular production designed by the incomparable Francesca Zambello returns to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage for the first time in 14 years.  With its large cast and orchestra, Billy Budd is the largest scaled of Britten’s operas, and the composer, a master of orchestration and choral writing, deployed his massive forces with remarkable dexterity.

“This season, I am especially thrilled that Billy Budd will return to our stage,” said Domingo.   This is the sixth of Britten’s masterworks that he and the Los Angeles Opera have presented to Southland audience.  In the past few years, aficionados were captivated by the composer’s haunting tale of youth versus the forces of darkness in The Turn of The Screw, which was followed by the unexpected comic opera, Albert Herring.  “I wanted to follow those two operas with one of Britten’s biggest works,” said Placido Domingo.  “I am also delighted to bring back director Francesca Zambello’s remarkable staging of this opera. I think that it’s her best work, and I am proud of the great success that this production had here in Los Angeles in 2000 and in Washington in 2004. I am also very proud to have discovered baritone Liam Bonner.   He is going to be a wonderful Billy.”

Billy Budd runs 6 performances only from Saturday Feb 22nd thru Sunday, March 16, 2014; Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 North Grand Ave., L.A. CA 90012; tickets start at $19 and can be purchased in person at the LA Opera Box Office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, by phone at 213.972.8001 (Se Habla Español) or online at

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