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  • Forster & Billy Budd
  • Judith Scherer Herz
Hanna Rochlitz. Sea-Changes: Melville–Forster–Britten: The Story of Billy Budd and Its Operatic Adaptation. Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen, 2012. 594 pp. €48.00

The full title offers an epitome of this extensive and exceptionally detailed study. There Forster is poised between Melville and Britten as reader, interpreter, and adaptor of the Melville text. The resulting (sea-changed) book now libretto is at the same time placed in relation to Forster’s imagination and his own artistic concerns, allowing for a wide-ranging study of the music and the written word, indeed the rewritten word. “Rescuing Vere from his creator” was how Forster understood his goal in this project. How he did it, how the collaboration unfolded and the libretto evolved, and what that entailed each step of the way (and given the detail I do mean each step) are the multiple (but unified) subjects of this study.

What the opera omits from Melville’s text, what ambiguous and hidden aspects are brought to the surface, how the orchestral voice functions as and for the Melville narrator, how Billy becomes more articulate and Claggart’s hatred more comprehensible, and how Vere’s inner conflict and remorse turn him into a tragic figure constitute the subject of the first of the three parts of this book. They subtend the study’s basic assumption and through-line argument that Forster found in the novella and in his work on the resulting libretto a vehicle for engaging homosexual longings and a means to critique his culture’s homophobia. To do this, Rochlitz surveys the critical responses to the novella in the early twentieth century, especially in Britain, as they lead to the discussion concerning the making of the libretto, which, she argues is, in crucial ways (collaboration not withstanding), a Forster text.

The central and longest section is a Forster study in its own right. There Forster’s discussion of Billy Budd in the Clark lectures and his commentary in his Commonplace Book while working on the lectures, his 1947 BBC broadcast on Melville’s novella, and his 1951 “Letter from E. M. Forster” about the text and the libretto shaped from it that was published in The Griffin in 1951 become the framing space for [End Page 407] a review of Forster’s fiction. The fiction and the libretto are brought together in ways that offer original insights. Emphasis is placed on important narrative patterns, words, phrases, moments in the fiction, as well as recurring characters especially those “seeking salvation,” all of which resonate (sometimes musically) in the opera. The result is a fascinating reading of several Forster texts, notably The Longest Journey (Agnes as a Claggart precursor) and the short fiction, “Ralph and Tony,” “Arthur Snatchfold” and “The Other Boat.” Maurice also enters the discussion as it offers character types and motifs. And as Rochlitz notes, speculating fruitfully on the relationship between the two works, Forster’s working with Crozier and Britten in 1960 on revisions to the opera from the original 1951 four-act version to its final two-act state coincided with his writing the “Terminal Note.” Throughout Rochlitz skillfully engages the work of recent critics and queer theorists to work out her arguments and uses, as well, important biographical contexts from the Furbank and Beauman biographies. She might have noted, however, Wendy Moffat’s 2010 E. M. Forster: A New Life, which makes the homoerotic its constant focus. Although Moffat devotes only a few pages to the Forster/Britten collaboration, she does make several of the same points that are argued here.

The final section carefully follows the stages of the opera’s creation, beginning in 1948. Crozier’s important role in this process for the shaping of the libretto as performance and sometimes as mediator between Britten and Forster is examined in detail. Interestingly she documents Crozier’s evident obliviousness to the novella’s and opera’s homosexual subtext, but she also emphasizes the shared political beliefs of the three collaborators and the presence of those beliefs in the libretto. Nonetheless, the focus remains on Forster and Britten and Forster’s claim in a letter to Britten: “You...


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pp. 407-409
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Will Be Archived 2021
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