Being Billy

Classic Arts Features   Being Billy
The Met season will come to a close with Nathan Gunn taking on the title role of Britten's Billy Budd for the first time with the company. The dynamic baritone spoke with the Met's Charles Sheek about Billy, Britten: and what he learned from Domingo.


This is your first Billy Budd at the Met, but you've sung the role with other companies. What attracts you to this character?

I'm in awe of Billy's strength and ability to love. How he handles the challenges in his life, and how he faces the horror he's confronted with in the character of Claggart: that's something I admire and am amazed by.

The Billy _Claggart conflict is often portrayed as a fight between good and evil. What do you think?

If you think of Billy as light and Claggart as dark, it's clear they can't coexist. The light will always destroy the dark and the darkness will always try to hide from the light. I don't see Claggart so much as being evil as I see him just being human. He's an exaggerated version of you and me.

When Billy accidentally kills Claggart, Captain Vere has no choice but to condemn him to death: or does he?

I understand that this story is often read in law school because of this very question. Did Vere have a choice? Absolutely. He made the mistake of thinking that doing nothing would free him of any kind of guilt. He realizes later that inaction has consequences. He also realizes that Billy chose to forgive him, not out of some high-minded philosophical reason, but simply because by nature he chooses to love rather than hate and to be brave rather than fearful. This is Billy's strength: no matter what happens to him, he always chooses love.

What is it about Britten's music that appeals to you?

I admire how close the music and text are. They can't be separated. The music flows out of the meaning of the words and the sounds that they make.

You were a winner of the Met's National Council Auditions, and you're a graduate of the company's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. How did being a young singer at the Met shape your career?

Being able to watch the work of great artists from all over the world allowed me to really appreciate the power of the art form. I remember clearly watching Plšcido Domingo in a dress rehearsal of Otello. This legend in the opera world seemed to rip open his chest and bleed all over the stage for me and the rest of the audience. I was so moved by his devotion and courage that I wanted to see if I could be as committed and as courageous myself.

Billy Budd opens May 4.

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