Herman Melville’s and Benjamin Britten’s versions of Billy Budd address similar issues of morality and justice, beauty and innocence, and authority and the law at a particular time period, though with different emphases and vividness that hint at Melville’s and Britten’s own concerns, within which the anxieties of the period in which they lived are embedded. Even though both versions deliver the tragic events surrounding the case of Billy Budd through an analeptic lens, Britten’s operatic adaptation distinguishes itself from Melville’s novella right from the opening scene. The opera’s prologue and epilogue serve as a structuring device that reframes the overall narrative. In an attempt to compare the opera and the novella, one is compelled to consider the weight of the narrative voices and their points of view. Either way, Billy Budd is applicable to the understanding of three key historical phases: the “summer of 1797,” during which the narrative events take place; the mid- to late-nineteenth century, during which Melville authored the text; and the post-World War II years, during which Britten composed the opera. The nineteenth-century American reader would have had to imagine not only a different time, but also a foreign place across the Atlantic. The spatial and temporal displacement of events grants Melville a narrative freedom insofar as it prevents the story from being reduced to interpretations specific to America, at the same time that it does not rule out the possibility and applicability thereof. Likewise, the use of the ship and the eighteenth-century event compels Britten’s twentieth-century audiences to recall a historical period that marked the beginning of nations as in the modern state, and in some ways, the trajectory of the First and Second World Wars.
Just as Melville begins the narrative by taking the reader backward in time, to “the time before steamships,” Britten, too, takes the viewer backward in time—via Captain Vere’s memory of the events that unfold. Melville’s novella opens with an unknown first-person narrator, who asserts his presence at the beginning of the novel, but whose identity is never revealed. Throughout the novella, he slips in and out of the narrative, as if for no reason other than to remind the reader of his presence. While the narrative point of view is established as that of the first-person from the beginning of the novella, the narrator often evokes a voice more likely to belong to a third-person omniscient narrator. The esoteric narrator who has access to the thoughts of the characters in Billy Budd, albeit a limited one, echoes the subtitle of the novella: “an inside narrative.” Melville does not make explicit whether or not the narrator was present when the events took place, and any attempt to interpret the role of the narrative voice remains open-ended and inconclusive. On the other hand, in the case of Britten’s operatic adaptation, in which the action that takes place is reframed as an analeptic account derived from Vere’s memory, the narrator’s identity is predetermined by the opera’s creators and need not be questioned. The reframing of the narrative voice presented in the form of Vere’s memory is an authorial move on the part of the opera’s creators—that is, Benjamin Britten and the librettists, Eric Crozier and E. M. Forster. The authorial strategy adds a teleological overtone to the operatic version of the narrative and skews the audience’s understanding of it.
The alteration of the narrative’s framing device is key: Vere’s sole appearances in the opera's prologue and epilogue underscore a statement of intent that is distinct from that in Melville’s text. He functions as the poles of the audience’s understanding of the events that come to take place. In any attempt to interpret the opera, therefore, it is crucial to factor in the individuality and subjectivity of Vere as narrative agency and authorial mouthpiece. At the same time, by using Vere as the frame of the narrative, the opera’s creators are acknowledging the opera’s intermediary role in the adapting and staging of Melville’s novella. Like Vere, the version of Billy Budd that is depicted on stage is one influenced by the composer’s and librettists’ subjective interpretations of the original text. Furthermore, their understanding of the text is as susceptible to the eroding forces of time and space as is Vere’s memory, which frames the plot action. Whether or not it was intended on the part of its creators, the opera offers the open (and opening) statement of the fallibility of its own understanding and presentation of the narrative.
Given the history of this particular text by Herman Melville, the attempt to adapt the novella for another medium warrants special attention. The unfinished manuscript for Billy Budd was discovered after the author’s death and published posthumously in 1924. Though E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier had, presumably, written the libretto of Britten’s opera “in good faith,” the texts through which the narrative of Billy Budd had reached them is comparable to the “authorized weekly publication” that Melville’s narrator mentions. The publication gave “an account of the affair”—that is, the case of Billy Budd. The opera is comparable, though not analogous, to the publication insofar as the texts through which the narrative had reached them “served to deflect and in part falsify” the account (1432). While the publication, which “stood in human record to attest what manner of men respectively were John Claggart and Billy Budd,” is not an effective analogue for the opera, the notion of deflection and falsification in the attempt to adapt the novella for a stage production is neither impossible nor improbable. The opera’s reframing of the narrative adheres to a passage given in the novella:
Aside from its deeper contextual significance in relation to the narrative events, this passage is applicable to Britten’s operatic adaptation. As it is based off Melville’s unfinished novella, the opera is bound to have its “ragged edges.” However faithfully Melville’s narrator recounts how it fared with the “Handsome Sailor during the year of the Great Mutiny,” and although “properly the story ends with his life,” “something in way of sequel will not be amiss” (1431). Britten’s opera offers an interpretation of Melville’s novella within the context of the composer’s contemporary era, and comprises one version of a sequel to the unfinished narrative.
In both Britten’s and Melville’s Billy Budd, the ship functions as a self-contained, floating, and isolated social space at sea that begins to take on its own social codes and norms. The voyage narrative is a conventional trope for an anatomy of society, with “the small world of the ship serv[ing] as a microcosm of civilization as a whole.” In the novella, Melville depicts the chaotic, discordant combination of “dissimilar personalities” to be found on a great warship: