This coming weekend marks the premiere of Billy Budd, a fantastic and queer-ish opera, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in Los Angeles. We were fortunate enough to step backstage for a glimpse at the set during rehearsals.
Join us for a meander through the wings and up onto the hydraulic set.
“There would be no Brokeback Mountain without Billy Budd,” said Gary Murphy, Director of Communications and PR for the Opera. He’s referring to the Brokeback Mountain opera, currently in Madrid. Like Melville’s novella, this show has strong homoerotic undertones. It’s a story of male gaze, attraction and jealousy aboard a ship just after the French Revolution.
Though Melville’s homosexuality has never quite been confirmed (we like to assume that he and Nathaniel Hawthorne were cozy), the show was written by Benjamin Britten, a gay man with a history of problematic relationships. Its librettist, E.M. Forster, was family as well.
Forster wrote that Claggart’s feelings for Billy are “love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but never the less flowing down its agonizing channel; a sexual discharge gone evil.”
“The reason that you come to see it is because of the drama,” said star Liam Bonner. Yes indeed!
The set pieces traveled to Los Angeles through New York, just in time to be delayed by a massive snowstorm. It’s not the first time that misfortune has hit the show: One container of costumes is currently residing at the bottom of the harbor in Rotterdam.
Here’s Liam Bonner looking contemplative.
The posters for the show depict a shirtless man climbing a set; he’s very handsome, but he isn’t Bonner. When asked the identity of the man on the poster, opera officials shrugged. Nobody knows! That art just sort of came with the production, originating in parts unknown. Ineffable is the theater.
Here’s an early costume design. Tickets start at $19. Cheap!
The Oscars used to be held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. Here are a few remnants.
Reporters climb the set.
Liam marches out onto a hydraulic platform where much of the action takes place.
The platform rises up to reveal ship’s quarters below; or sinks down to an incline, when the action is concentrated above deck.
Various hatches and terrifying staircases allow actors to move from level to level.
Here you can see the hinge in the set where the platform rises and falls. It is unnerving, and difficult enough just to stand on. Now imagine the floor rising and falling while you’re singing an opera.
This gentleman, believe it or not, oversees the backstage tech.
Here’s another element of the set: a mast that rises 30 feet into the air.
The guts of the theater are a bit like a cathedral.
“Kemper is gay,” says this concrete weight. Sure, but is he single?
Various signs. Only stewards may operate the paddle.
This upright bass has been around the block a few times.
The orchestra was rehearsing in the lobby.
And now here’s William Shatner, at 23 years old, in a TV production of Billy Budd. Everyone is doing a British accent except Shatner. Sabotage!