Under the Articles of War enacted by the British Navy in the 18th century, many crimes qualified as capital offenses, including mutiny, treason, robbery, sodomy and murder. Executions were often carried out by hanging, with the convict strung up from the ship's yardarm.
By accounts from that era, these hangings were more a gradual strangulation than a snap of the neck. They were also complicated, requiring several men to hoist and secure the convict at a considerable height on a moving ship.
The climactic hanging in Los Angeles Opera's revival of "Billy Budd" — opening on Feb. 22 — is also complicated, though for different reasons. To simulate the look of a naval execution, the company's production team has laboriously rehearsed the sequence in which baritone Liam Bonner as Billy is hoisted and left suspended 12 feet above the set.
The scene is treacherous enough to necessitate the presence of the production's original director, Francesca Zambello, who first mounted this staging in 1994.
Bonner stands on a wooden plank and is hoisted by six male performers who must coordinate their movements or risk having the star tumble onto the steeply raked set. They must then drop the plank from under his feet in unison at the moment of execution.
In a recent rehearsal, Zambello had the performers practice their moves several times — first without Bonner and then with the singer, who didn't wear any safety gear despite the real possibility that he could fall off and injure himself. Lifting the singer was no simple task — he stands 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 190 pounds.
"How do you feel, Liam?" asked Zambello when the singer was fully hoisted in the air.
"I'll feel good when I'm hooked up to the cable," he replied, referring to the safety device that will be used during performances.
Height is a crucial aspect of this "Billy Budd." The protagonist is tall, handsome and charismatic. The vertically oriented set represents the swaying mast of the HMS Indomitable. And the production itself is the pinnacle of L.A. Opera's yearlong centenary tribute to composer Benjamin Britten, born in 1913.
"It's an ideal choice of subject for an opera — it's a universe contained in a universe [on this ship]," said L.A. Opera music director James Conlon. Surprisingly, he is conducting "Billy Budd" for his first time. "It wasn't deliberate. Things sometimes happen that way in opera."
In the last 12 months, Conlon has led local performances of several Britten works, his "War Requiem" and "The Rape of Lucretia." In recent seasons, L.A. Opera has staged the composer's "The Turn of the Screw" and "Albert Herring."
"James and I wanted to follow those two operas with one of his biggest works," said Placido Domingo, the company's general director.
"Billy Budd" is epic — a tale of innocence destroyed on the high seas. Adapted from the novel by Herman Melville, the story follows a young sailor who is beloved by his crew members but whose youthful charisma earns him the enmity of his superior, the master-at-arms Claggart (bass-baritone Greer Grimsley).
The opera was also a personal one for Britten for its homosexual subtext. (The composer was gay and lived at a time when homosexual acts were criminal in Britain.) The sublimated attraction that Claggart feels for Billy plays out in an all-male setting, though Claggart never articulates any sexual longing.
The degree to which they should show the attraction was a matter of some dispute among the opera's creators, according to a recent article that Conlon wrote for the Hudson Review.
E.M. Forster, the author of "Howards End" and "A Passage to India," among other works, wrote much of the libretto for the opera. Forster, who was also gay, wanted Claggart's homoerotic feelings for Billy to be more directly expressed and said so to the composer.
But Britten resisted making the changes, apparently preferring audiences to read between the notes.