Photo: Alastair Muir/Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.

Ahoy Ferry Riders: SFO Presents Billy Budd


Signaling an event sure to speak to ferry riders, the San Francisco Opera presents Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece of law and order on the high seas, Billy Budd.

There will be six performances at the War Memorial Opera House September 7–22.

Based on the unfinished novella by Herman Melville and set to a libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, Billy Budd returns to the Company’s repertory after a 15-year absence in the “powerful” (New York Times) staging by Tony Award-winning director Michael Grandage. Lawrence Renes conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and an all-male cast of 75 artists, including 44 men from the San Francisco Opera Chorus prepared by Chorus Director Ian Robertson and 8 boys from the Ragazzi Boys Chorus. The performances coincide with the Melville bicentennial and the 100th anniversary of the posthumous discovery of the American author’s unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd.

Grandage said, “Britten has this brilliant capacity to conjure up the huge, surging sound of the sea through the orchestra. Therefore, I wanted to leave the sea to the orchestra and focus on creating the claustrophobic, violent, capricious shipboard world that these characters inhabit.”

Unveiled at the 2010 Glyndebourne Festival and revived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, Grandage’s production has earned wide acclaim for “its cogency and sharpness of realistic detail” (Opera News). Production designer Christopher Oram’s “breathtaking hulk of a set” (The Telegraph) transforms as the action, which takes place entirely aboard the HMS Indomitable (an eighteenth-century British warship), moves above and below deck. The production is staged in revival by director Ian Rutherford and features original lighting design by Paule Constable executed by David Manion.

American tenor William Burden, who last season added George Bailey in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life to his repertory of heroic portrayals at San Francisco Opera, is Edward Fairfax Vere, the captain of the Indomitable whose recollection of a disturbing incident sets the story in motion. American baritone John Chest, a leading artist at the Deutsche Oper Berlin who recently appeared at the Glyndebourne Festival, makes his Company debut as Billy Budd. The former Merola Opera Program participant’s voice was praised by Gramophone as “both beautiful and immediately engaging. Virile but distinguished by an appealing vulnerability.” Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, winner of the 2018 Richard Tucker Award and who appeared as Zoroastro in Handel’s Orlandowith San Francisco Opera this summer, is the ship’s master-at-arms, John Claggart.

The ensemble cast features Philip Horst as Mr. Redburn, Wayne Tigges as Mr. Flint,current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Christian Pursell as Lieutenant Ratcliffe, Robert Brubaker as Red Whiskers, Brenton Ryan as a Novice, Adler Fellow Christopher Colmenero as Maintop, Matthew O’Neill as Squeak, John Brancy as Donald, Edward Nelson as Bosun, Sidney Outlaw as First Mate, Kenneth Overton as Second Mate, Eugene Villanueva as the Novice’s Friend, Philip Skinner as Dansker and Hadleigh Adams as Arthur Jones. Lawrence Renes, who led the San Francisco Opera premiere of John Adams’ Nixon in China in 2012, conducts Britten’s turbulent score.

San Francisco Opera has presented Billy Budd in three previous seasons, beginning in 1978 when David Atherton conducted performances featuring sets and costumes modeled on John Piper’s designs for the 1951 world premiere production at London’s Covent Garden. The production was revived in 1985 under the baton of Raymond Leppard with American tenor James King as Captain Vere and baritone Dale Duesing as Billy. The opera returned during the 2004–05 Season in director Willy Decker’s production, conducted by then San Francisco Opera Music Director Donald Runnicles with a cast featuring Kim Begley as Vere, Nathan Gunn in the title role and Phillip Ens as Claggart.

Sung in English with English supertitles, the six performances of Billy Budd are scheduled for September 7 (7:30 pm), September 12 (7:30 pm), September 15 (2 pm), September 17 (7:30 pm), September 20 (7:30 pm) and September 22 (2 pm), 2019.