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Although the term 'realism' is frequently deployed in discussing opera productions, its meanings are far from self-evident. Examining four stage and screen productions of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd (1951–66), this article traces how this mode was reworked through television in the mid-twentieth century. Linking theatrical and televisual developments in the UK and the USA, I demonstrate how television's concerns for intimacy and immediacy guided both the 1951 premiere and the condensed 1952 NBC television version. I then show how challenges to the status quo, particularly the 'angry young men' of British theatre and the backlash against naturalism on television, spurred the development of a revamped 'realistic' style in the 1964 stage and 1966 BBC productions of Billy Budd. Beyond Billy Budd, this article explores how the meanings of realism changed during the 1950s and 1960s, and how they continue to influence our study of opera performance history.