Last night, Kathe and I went to see the LA Opera’s production of “Billy Budd”
by Benjamin Britten based on the novella by Herman Melville. The novelist E. M. Forster (Howard’s End, Room with a View, A Passage to India) co-wrote the libretto. The manuscript of Billy Budd was found in Melville’s desk when he died in 1891, and most scholars believe Melville has mostly completed it. It was finally published in 1924, and Britten wrote his opera in 1951. It was a wonderful production with a marvelous staging. The whole book takes place on a ship at sea. Our own Mark Beasom (bass-baritone section leader of our choir) was in it.
This is the first opera we have been to here in LA (maybe the last – I am just not an opera fan)and were surprised and delighted to find out that the words were projected high on a screen so we could follow the text. The music was terrific and the whole staging was really superb. We caught a bit of the director James Conlon’s talk describing the opera before the performance. Conlon suggested that the point of the novel was that goodness must be sacrificed for evil to be overcome, that Billy Budd is a Christ-figure who willingly is sacrificed so that evil – John Claggart – might be redeemed.
This was the standard interpretation of Billy Budd for many years, that it was Melville’s testament of acceptance, that after a whole life of protesting the flaws in the creation and suggesting the malevolence or at best the indifference of God, he had resigned to the idea that the good does indeed triumph in the end and that all, in the end, is well. Perhaps, but I don’t think so.
But that is a sermon for this Fall. I did my PhD thesis on Billy Budd. There is a good movie produced by Peter Ustinov who also stars in it.
The point of this is that questions of good and evil, right and wrong, hope and despair are real and questions we all face now and then, at some point in our lives. We try and find ways to talk with our children about these essential questions. Philosophers, theologians, artists all struggle with how to understand our world. We are meaning makers. What does it all mean? How do we decide how to live? Why is there evil? Or why is there good? What separates the two?
Neighborhood Church is a place of searching for meaning. Gathered together we believe we can make some sense of this world and our lives and perhaps become better people; we believe we can add to the good of the world. Neighborhood Church has been dedicated to that for all of its 129 years of its existence, and will, I know, for the next 129 years. Each year, we add to the structure of the good; each year we build a future that is a bit better; each year we build for a tomorrow where justice and compassion, wisdom and love are a bit stronger.
You have a part in that – all of you. The redemption of the world will not come because the ‘good’ are sacrificed. No, the redemption will come through places like Neighborhood Church.
-Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson