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‘Billy Budd,’ Tragically Charming the Boys for a Century

Melville’s novel and Britten’s opera are poignant reminders of the beauty and relevance of gay history.

Mr. Belcher is an editor in the Hong Kong office of Opinion.

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CreditYasuko Kageyama — Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Is “Billy Budd” the ultimate modern gay antihero who almost didn’t speak his name?

This year marks the centennial of the random discovery of Herman Melville’s novella by a scholar who was researching a biography of the author, and for a century “Billy Budd” has been analyzed and theorized as the ultimate battle of innocence, envy, voyeurism and latent homosexuality. Or is it just a tragic tale of a ship full of lonely and smelly men who secretly lust after the doomed and unobtainable pretty boy?

However it’s interpreted, a hundred years after its rebirth, Melville’s seafaring story is almost refreshing in its simplicity and shattering tragedy. In an era when the “Will & Grace” reboot constitutes a re-analysis of gay consciousness, the in-the-shadows subtleties of Melville’s tale are thrilling to ponder.

And Benjamin Britten’s opera of “Billy Budd,” written more than 25 years after the novel was unearthed, returns to the Royal Opera in London this month in a new production that has mesmerized audiences in Madrid and Rome over the last few years. It’s a well-timed and well-oiled “Billy Budd,” directed by Deborah Warner with a keen sense of how delicate the story and its characters are. It shines — or, rather, softly refocuses — a light on the power of one man over the multitudes.

It’s also sort of a homecoming since “Billy Budd” had its world premiere at the Royal in 1951 and remains one of the jewels in the crown of modern British opera, and also because it is quintessentially British. Melville wrote mostly of Americans on the high seas, most famously in “Moby-Dick,” but “Billy Budd” is about the English fighting the French during the Napoleonic wars, and Britten composed his work at a time when British modern opera was gaining global respect.

Melville’s tale is streamlined and harsh in its tragedy. Billy, a merchant seaman forced to join the Royal Navy, lands on the warship Bellipotent in 1797 and instantly enters into an all-hands-on-deck bromance with his shipmates, except for John Claggart, the master at arms who resents and possibly lusts for Billy. Claggart, who you could say Melville describes as, well, easy to date, falsely accuses Billy of plotting a mutiny since he clearly has the admiration (or a somewhat more potent emotion) of the ship’s crewmen and seems to be galvanizing them in some way.

When confronted by Claggart, in a moment of rage Billy lashes out and unintentionally kills him. Billy is court-martialed by a reluctant Captain Vere and sentenced to hang aboard the ship the next morning. The story’s final images of Billy marching to his execution — especially powerful in Britten’s opera amid haunting choral music from a cast of some 50 men — is perhaps the most poignant tragedy in Melville’s canon.

We have this tale thanks to the Columbia professor Raymond M. Weaver, who discovered “Billy Budd” among Melville’s writings in 1919, 28 years after the author’s death, although Melville’s widow is thought to have done some editing and may have kept the novel secret. Fine-tuned and published in 1924, it was an instant classic on both sides of the Atlantic. But did Melville hide it intentionally?

Although “Billy Budd” can be seen as another dreary tale of good-versus-evil masked as a tragic gay love story, its place in gay literary history is undeniable. The novel has long been thought of as Melville’s “coming out” book even though it lived in its own closet for nearly 30 years. But it is the opera “Billy Budd” and the 1962 film that sealed its place in gay history at a time when there was little such popular culture to hold onto.

Consider the film: Noël Coward once said that Peter O’Toole was so pretty in “Lawrence of Arabia” that it could have been called “Florence of Arabia.” The same can be said of Terence Stamp in the film. He’s practically “Milly Budd.” The ship’s crewmen all fall in love with this Billy, and not necessarily in a sexual way. His beauty represents innocence and youth — perhaps even the hope of war’s end — on a ship full of clinically depressed seamen no doubt jaded by the Napoleonic wars and lousy food.

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CreditAllied Artists/Photofest

The film, directed by Peter Ustinov (who also played Captain Vere), is a black-and-white postcard to male bonding, tension and loneliness. Billy’s story affects all of the characters because perhaps he represents the parts of them that have already died. And they must continue to face death and war after their beloved Billy has been taken from them.

But “Billy Budd” the opera has long been seen as a true watershed moment in gay history. The tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s partner with whom he lived hidden in plain sight for decades, was the original Captain Vere. One of the writers of the libretto was E.M. Forster, no stranger to gay literature and the closet (read “Maurice,” intentionally published after his death, for stable boys climbing through young men’s bedroom windows).

And the recent roster of opera stars who have played Billy is a beefcake roll call: Nathan Gunn, Rod Gilfry, Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Jacques Imbrailo, the dreamy South African baritone in the new Royal Opera production, which starts Tuesday and runs to May 10.

There is also something refreshing about a chorus of men singing of their love for the doomed Billy, for whom they have pined during months at sea, as seen from the present-day perspective of Grindr hookups on shore leave. “Billy Budd” taps into male love that most men — gay, straight and all the blurred lines in between — often would rather avoid: how to express love over objectification, or affection that is deeper than a football slap on the shoulder or an “I love you, man!” moment after a couple of beers.

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CreditYasuko Kageyama — Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Much has been written about the gay subtexts of Billy and his lusty shipmates, but as this production of “Billy Budd” proves, Melville’s hidden story haunts us to this day as the title character goes from the promise and power of youth to an unfairly doomed soul. It’s not just another one of the gay tragedies that defined so much of literature, theater and film in the 20th century. “Billy Budd” is grief acknowledged and deeply felt for a gay character — a rarity in the century after it was written.

“Billy Budd” is not a dated piece of gay literature seen from an era where corporate sponsors turn Pride parades into beer stands. “Billy Budd” spawned a film and opera that took the story to new levels — and new audiences to analyze and interpret. Billy is not merely the gay character who dies at the end, but that blurred character between gay and straight that our world seems to be embracing more and more. He is, ultimately, the most modern and refreshing of gay characters: the pretty boy who got a bum rap and makes 50 guys weep openly when his exit music starts playing.

David Belcher is an editor in the Hong Kong office of Opinion.

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