Rizzo Reviews: Billy Budd

Courtney Rizzo, MBA Class of 2015

I didn’t mind spending my Tuesday night on an emotional journey with a ship full of men. Ok, I was just in the audience at Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd, but it’s still a shame that it had to end so tragically.

Billy Budd

Young Billy’s first misfortune is to be delivered to his 1797 British naval assignment by a merchant ship called Rights o’ Man. The original source for the opera Billy Budd is the novella by Herman Melville, and Melville named this ship after Thomas Paine’s 1791 Rights of Man, a work in support of the popular revolution in France. Ironically, Billy is perfectly happy and willing to live a life in service: to his country, to Captain Vere (depicted with strong acting by Mark Padmore) even as Vere admits his ship is a “monarchy,” and to his shipmates, who quickly adopt him as the crew pretty-boy and favorite.

Everything Billy does is well-intentioned and innocent, made clear by Jacques Imbrailo’s bouncy and clear-toned portrayal. Unfortunately, his references to the Rights o’ Man are mistaken to be mutinous by the ship’s evil Master-at-Arms Claggart, sung here resonantly by bass Brindley Sherratt. Billy’s comment may have been forgotten, but Claggart is attracted to Billy’s “beauty, handsomeness, and goodness.” Presumably to shake the feeling, Claggart sets a trap for Billy that leads to a terrible mistake and both of their deaths.

Two NYU Steinhardt students happened to be sitting in front of me.  One of them mused, “Would the 1951 audience [of the premiere of Billy Budd] pick up on all the homoerotic undertones?” With the Russian anti-gay propaganda laws in the center of current media attention, it is hard to forget that this modern opera was written by a gay composer for his long-time partner, tenor Peter Pears, in collaboration with the closeted librettist E. M. Forster. Only through their art could hint at their true selves.

Just when I thought I was taking an evening off from MBA mode, musing about literature and politics, I became the subject of market research. Surveys were being handed out by Audience Research & Analysis (ARA), a firm that “helps arts, cultural tourism, and non-profit organizations understand their current and potential audiences” (according to its website) and is working with BAM throughout this season. The goal is to collect at least 5,000 completed surveys to help BAM understand the makeup of its audience, although the employees wouldn’t identify a certain question this survey set out to answer. They evidently hadn’t taken Professor Carr’s marketing course.

A key finding will be if there is a new audience segment or one with the potential to grow, presumably discovered through the questions like “Is this your first time at BAM?” and if not, “How many times a year do you attend a performance?” Combined with information about what New York based publications I read, in print or digital form, and in what media I had seen information about this performance, BAM should be able to turn findings into advertising campaigns more specifically targeted to the new market segments.

The ARA promises on its website that it can deliver a “near census level portrait of visitor geography, demographics, sources of information, media habits, and motivations for visiting.” Ultimately, this information serves another important purpose for nonprofits besides guiding its own marketing campaigns: to paint a picture of the organization’s reach to potential corporate sponsors, donors, and grant givers.

So, if the surveys mean that there will be more funding for BAM to keep presenting productions like the Glyndebourne Festival’s stunning Billy Budd, I’m all for it.

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