‘Til the Hunky Sailor Sings
Decoding the gay subtext of L.A. Opera’s latest production
Mike Ciriaco

Batten down your hatches, SoCal opera fans, because Baby Budd is docking in Los Angeles for a little shore leave. On Feb. 22, the revival of Billy Budd premieres at L.A. Opera’s Dorothy Chandiler Pavillion under the eagle-eyed guidance of director Francesca Zambello and music director James Conlon.
The story of Billy Budd simmers with overt homoeroticism. Adapted from a Herman Melville novella (Melville being possibly gay himself), Billy Budd is the creation of gay composer Benjamin Britten and his librettist (and lover) E.M. Forster. The opera centers around Claggert (played by Greer Grimsley), a predatory master-at-arms, and his sadistic obsession with destroying the work’s eponymous character. The titular hero, nicknamed ‘Baby’ because of his boyish beauty and childlike innocence, is portrayed by the charming ‘barihunk’ Liam Bonner. (That’s slang designated for opera’s sexiest male performers.) These two personifications of quintessential good and evil are underscored by Britten’s music, which itself suggests sexual tension ready to explode like one of the many cannons lining the HMS Bellipotent. 
Penned under the shadow that was cast by Oscar Wilde’s notorious gross indecency trials and subsequent imprisonment, Britten coded gay themes into the subtext of his works to avoid the homophobic prohibitions of the time. The primary motif of Billy Budd is the inability to express truth and the inevitable destruction that follows. Budd, who suffers from stuttering when agitated, is unable to verbally defend himself against his captain when Claggert accuses him of conspiracy. This frustration causes the young sailor to fatally punch the master-at-arms, leading to Budd’s own climatic execution.
This theme, described by Forster as “sexual discharge gone evil,” is characterized by Claggert as well, evidenced in the lines “Having seen you, what choice remains to me? None, none! I am doomed to annihilate you; I am vowed to your destruction. I will wipe you off the face of the earth, off this tiny fragment of earth, off this ship where fortune has led you.”
“Claggart’s desire for Billy cannot be fulfilled, and therefore he must destroy him,” explains Conlon, a Britten scholar, in his essay Breaking the Code. “The librettist intended this all to be specifically and passionately sexual.” 
While the mores of the 1950s required discretion, in the 21st century both audiences and cast members can revel in the palpable homoeroticism of this all-male opera.
“This is my second production of Billy Budd—I performed the role of Lt. Redburn in Houston in 2008—and the atmosphere during the run was more like a giant frat party,” Bonner said during a recent interview. “All the guys got along marvelously, constantly hanging out, both in and out of rehearsals, and cracking jokes, usually dirty. I realized then that the feeling of creating those characters for that world premiere might have been what it was like for those who premiered Billy Budd with Britten.”
In addition to building relationships with his cast and training his angelic voice, Bonner was also tasked with fulfilling the requirements of becoming Billy Budd, the embodiment of unadulterated aesthetic perfection.
“To be honest, that expectation of the role has stressed me out more than the actual singing of the role. Knowing the criteria for that designation, I also must say that I don’t feel like I belong in the category of ‘barihunk.’ I know what I have to offer and what I don’t. I take comfort knowing that Theodor Uppman and Thomas Allen weren’t ‘ripped,’ and they are, to me, the foremost interpreters of this role.”
Beyond its eye and ear candy, Billy Budd offers an important message to LGBT audiences. “Prejudice in so many forms is present everywhere,” says Zambello. “Not just younger gay audiences but anyone who has faced discrimination can appreciate this story, as everyone has experienced it in some way.”
Experience L.A. Opera’s Billy Budd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Feb. 22 - March 16. A special Frontiers Night Out performance and after-party—featuring a hosted bar, hors d’oeuvres and Baby Budd himself, Liam Bonner—will take place on Thursday, March 13. For more info, go to LAOpera.org/Frontiers.

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