A Shipload of Exceptions to Billy Budd Article
Editors Note:Quite a few letters were received regarding errors in an essay in the July-August issue titled “For the Love of Billy Budd,” by Jeffrey Meyers, which discussed the creation of Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd, based on the Herman Melville novella. Some letters were brief, merely pointing out that singer Peter Pears was a tenor, not a baritone, while others described additional mistakes that they had spotted. I found several of these letters interesting and informative, so let me just spool them out as written, even though they may cover some of the same ground.
To the Editor:
I have just received my as always eagerly anticipated copy of The G&LR, perhaps a little later than many of your readers, since I live in England, and no doubt you have by now heard from many bewildered readers of Jeffrey Meyers’ piece about Britten’s Billy Budd. Presumably the long, hot summer has induced you to give leave to all your sub-editors, but it was a rash decision, if this wildly inaccurate piece is the outcome.
The errors start in the second paragraph with the hilarious claim that Britten wrote the role of the young sailor Billy Budd for David Hemmings, with whom Britten was “in love.” The late Mr Hemmings was ten at the time of the opera’s premiere and never sang again in opera after he created the role of Miles in Britten’s Turn of the Screw in 1954, though he appeared in the title role in Britten’s The Little Sweep on the composer’s 1956 recording of it. Britten abruptly ceased to be in love with him after Hemmings’ voice broke in the middle of a performance of Turn of the Screw. The role of Billy was in fact first sung by the fiercely handsome, 31-year-old American baritone, Theodor Uppman, who left his job in the oil industry in order to do so. Britten actually wrote the part with the short, stocky, and highly heterosexual Geraint Evans in mind, but Evans lacked the high notes so central to the role.
Reeling from these misconceptions in Mr Meyer’s piece, one settled down to follow his argument when one was stunned all over again to see Peter Pears, Britten’s partner and muse, possessor of one of the most distinctive tenor voices of the 20th century, described as a baritone. At this point one stopped reading, though Mr Meyers’ distinguished history as a scholar of gay history had promised much. Next time you commission a piece about opera, perhaps you might get someone who has actually listened to the music. And maybe cancel those sub-editors’ vacations.
Yours sincerely and with only temporarily suspended admiration, your regular reader for many and many a year,
Simon Callow, London, England
To the Editor:
Perhaps Jeffrey Meyers writes with authority on the literary background of Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd, but he and The G&LRare in quite a muddle about the casting of the 1951 premiere production. The original Billy was American baritone Theodor Uppman, not future film actor David Hemmings. The latter would not be featured in a Britten premiere cast until three years later, when (still only twelve years old, and indeed the object of the composer’s infatuation), he created the boy treble role of Miles in The Turn of the Screw.
Moreover, Billy Budd’s title role appears never to have been “earmarked” for Britten’s lover Peter Pears. According to co-librettist Eric Crozier, as quoted in Humphrey Carpenter’s Britten biography, Pears was slated for the role of Captain Vere from the opera’s earliest planning stages in 1948. “Most composers, I am certain, would have allocated the tenor role to the innocent young hero Billy: Britten took it for granted that it must go to Melville’s wise and thoughtful naval commander, Vere, who would be sung by Peter Pears.”
John Borstel, Silver Spring, MD
To the Editor:
Author Jeffrey Meyers’ otherwise fascinating essay about composer Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Buddinadvertently reveals that apparently he never knowingly heard Peter Pears sing, either in person or on recording. The distinctive sound of Pears’ voice unmistakably was that of a tenor, not a baritone.
This may be a generational thing. I’m 82 and began vocal lessons that led to an operatic sound at age 32. My operatic listening really began in earnest then (about 1968). (I subsequently sang a lot of operatic roles for baritone with smaller companies in the New York area, but never had a full-fledged career.) It was in the late 1960s and ’70s that I heard a good number of singers in operatic recordings and broadcasts, Peter Pears among them, as part of my artistic development. Peter Pears was a tenor, but with a very unusual and identifiable timbre, closer to a countertenor than to a baritone.
Robert Leuze, New York City
To the Editor:
I have never read something quite as factually sloppy as Jeffrey Meyers’ essay about Britten’s opera of Billy Buddin your last issue. Meyers wrote: “This opera was created in a homosexual milieu. E.M. Forster, the librettist of Billy Budd, was a repressed homosexual. Britten, the composer, and Peter Pears, the leading singer, were long-time lovers. Britten was also in love with the handsome young David Hemmings, who played Billy Budd, and with the attractive young Roman Magill, who took the role of Tadzio in Britten’s opera Death in Venice.”
First, Forster was not a “repressed” homosexual but a practicing one. David Hemmings (who later become the movie star of Blow Up) was a boy soprano who sang in Britten’s chamber opera version of The Turn of the Screw. Billy Budd was written for an adult baritone, and it was debuted by a handsome hunk named Theodor Uppman.
Further on, there is this amazing blooper: “Britten shifted the emphasis in the story from Billy to Captain Vere, for musical rather than dramatic purposes, so that the baritone Peter Pears could have the leading role.” Peter Pears was a famously high tenor, and he played the Captain, so this makes absolutely no sense at all.
By the way, I think Meyers was also wrong about Britten being in love with Roman Magill, the Tadzio dancer in Death in Venice. Britten himself was literally dying while writing the opera, so I don’t think there was much extra energy for anything but composing at that point. Meyer has probably gotten Magill confused with the original adolescent dancer-actor-singer who performed Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream fifteen years earlier.
Michael Strickland, San Francisco
To the Editor:
Thank you for your music issue, which I have enjoyed reading. Unfortunately, in the article on Billy Budd, there was a really large number of incorrect statements.
The piece refers to E. M. Forster as a repressed homosexual. No, he was closeted. He had a long-term relationship with another man, but it was kept very private. David Hemmings definitely did not play Billy Budd in 1951. He did play Miles in Britten’s next opera, The Turn of the Screw. That was in 1954, and Hemmings was still a boy soprano, though also the lead male singer in this opera. Ronan Magill, who took the dancing role of Tadzio in Britten’s last opera, was in his teens at the time. Britten was a very sick man by then, and I very much doubt he had designs on anyone. He did not try to seduce Hemmings, but he shared his bath and slept in his bed, so definitely not blameless behavior. Death in Venicewas called an apology for pedophilia by some critics, and Britten’s operatic adaptation received the same kind of criticism.
A great part of Britten’s output has strong gay overtones, from his young prodigy days right until the end. I think it would have been useful to have a general overview of his works, as you did with Bernstein’s music in the same issue. These two composers, both known to be gay, had a really crucial role in beginning the battle to bring gay people out of the closets and into the mainstream. Despite all the errors in your article, it was good to have coverage of this aspect of gay life in the mid-20th century.
Joseph Cooper, Santa Barbara, CA
Jeffrey Meyers Replies:
I’m embarrassed and deeply regret the serious errors that several readers pointed out in my article on Britten’s Billy Budd. E. M. Forster was a closeted (not a repressed) homosexual. Peter Pears was a tenor (not a baritone). Theodor Uppman (not David Hemmings) played Billy Budd. Hemmings created the role of Miles in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.
The editor has asked me to explain how this misfortune occurred. I don’t know and can only speculate. Readers will be surprised to hear that this has never happened before in my 54 books and 975 articles. This time I was careless and too eager to send out the article and get the editor’s response. I may have been a bit out of my depth when writing about music rather than my usual subjects: literature, art, and film. I promise to pull up my socks and concentrate harder next time.
I was pleased, however, to see that none of the readers quarreled with my interpretation of the opera.
Jeffrey Meyers, Berkeley, CA
How I Rescued Quentin Crisp’s Memoir
To the Editor:
The review of Quentin Crisp’s posthumous autobiography in the May-June issue prompts some adjustments and corrections as to the book’s production. The manuscript, kept for years by Philip Ward, was released to Laurence Watts, who agreed to edit what I believe were jottings, notes, and diary entries from Crisp’s last year or two. Mr. Watts compiled these into a rough draft and then hired me to edit it further.
Our agreement paid me for the work but with the proviso that I would not be mentioned in the final book as its editor. This was, he said, the agreement he made with Philip Ward. That was satisfactory to me, and I went to work dealing with Crisp’s rambling reminiscences and philosophical musings, to which he felt his ninety years entitled him, and toning down the name-dropping. Mr. Watts then read the edited manuscript, liked it, and suggested only a few changes. I believe he also sent the manuscript to Philip Ward for final approval, but I’m no longer in touch with Mr. Watts to verify this. I have never met Mr. Ward, and I’m not sure that he knows that I had anything to do with the book’s final edit.
Peter Marino’s kind remark that he found “The Last Word to be smoothly written” impelled me to come clean on who smoothed out Crisp’s choppy reminiscences. That would be me. But I didn’t get my own way with everything. Mr. Watts insisted on a set of footnotes, many of which identify well-known people like Shakespeare, Milton, Marilyn Monroe, and Sigmund Freud, to name a few, thus insulting the reader’s intelligence. He would have none of it, and all of these footnotes remained despite my strong objections.
You will have to take my word for my doing the editing; I was paid in cash, and there is no paper trail. All I have is the original rough draft and the edited book. What puzzled me was that Laurence Watts, whose name appears on the book’s cover as co-editor, is not mentioned in Marino’s review. I am glad, however, that he found the book entertaining enough to call it a confection.
Robert Heylmun, San Diego
Let Science Speak for Itself
To the Editor,
Timothy F. Murphy’s letter in the May-June issue assails the groundbreaking scientific theories reported by James O’Keefe in “Evolutionary Origins of Homosexuality,” which appeared in the Jan.-Feb. 2018 issue. I fear the standpoint from which Murphy dismisses the evidence is not much different from the postmodern skepticism about science—and reality for that matter—that is responsible for the growth of “alternative facts” in public discourse in the U.S. today. Murphy does not acknowledge science, or a knowable objective reality, in his letter, instead relegating science to a partisan political niche that he calls “Natural Law theorists.”
In lieu of science, Murphy believes that a “far better defense of same-sex interests and identities” would be the assertion that “they have value in themselves and in the relationships they make possible.” But that subjective claim, which is all it is, is vulnerable to far more political meddling and distortion than a scientific theory that identifies evolution’s role in selecting for homosexuals for the sake of social cohesion and survival. It is a theory that can be verified or falsified through ongoing scientific research.
Nicholas F. Benton, Falls Church, VA
How Dismal Were Wilde’s Last Years?
To the Editor:
In reading Frederick Roden’s review of Nicholas Frankel’s Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years[May-June 2018], I found myself wondering if Roden and I had read the same book.
Roden writes, for example, that author Nicholas Frankel “asserts that Wilde continued a prolific, more authentic artistic life after prison.” In fact, Frankel shows that other than finishing The Ballad of Reading Gaoland making revisions to two plays, Wilde did not produce any new work after his release from prison in 1897 up to his death in 1900. It was not for lack of requests: several publishers and producers kept asking for plays. Wilde took advances from several of them for the same promised play but never even started it. How is this “a more authentic artistic life”?
Roden also asserts that Frankel posits that Wilde and Douglas’ cohabitation in Paris and Naples was “a radical gesture.” Not really. Frankel shows the pains the two took to keep it hidden, since each risked losing his allowance if the relationship became known. Wilde even hid his identity under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmouth, since he also feared, with reason, that many hotels wouldn’t have him as a client.
Roden feels that Frankel’s portrait of Wilde in his last years “provokes more compassion for the broken human than any other that I’ve read.” It may inspire compassion in Roden, but Frankel does not whitewash those years. He shows that Wilde became an unproductive lush and a shameless sponge, begging even people he barely knew for money to support his heavy drinking, drugging, and hiring of male prostitutes.
For Roden, “the tendency to deify Wilde is palpable in Frankel’s extraordinary book. … [T]he author has made a convincing case for extending the heroic image into his final years.” Frankel does not attempt to deify Wilde or paint him as a hero or martyr. Nor, while it is informative, is Frankel’s biography extraordinary. It keeps getting ahead in its chronology and then has to back up.
I’m happy Roden enjoyed Frankel’s book, and I think that others will as well. But they should know that it is not the hagiography that Roden suggests.
Richard Berrong, Cuyahoga Falls, OH
Bernstein’s Gay Creds Questioned
To the Editor:
I must reply to David LaFontaine’s “Bernsteinomania” (July-August 2018). While there’s no doubting Leonard Bernstein’s extravagant talents in multiple fields, he was no gay icon.
In Priest of Music: The Life of Dimitri Mitropoulos, William R. Trotter recounts Bernstein’s “very vocal … and needlessly nasty gay-bashing.” By early 1947, when Bernstein announced his engagement to Felicia Montealegre, “He had, from all visible signs, gone straight … a determined effort to suppress his own sexual nature in the interest of his career.”
Even worse was Bernstein’s betrayal of his gay rival in the matter of Koussevitsky’s replacement as music director of the Boston Symphony. To quote Trotter again: “Having seen at first hand the anguish Mitropoulos had suffered because of his own sexual preference … Bernstein simply went to Koussevitzky … and said: ‘You know, don’t you, that Mitropoulos is a homosexual?’ … Koussevitzky went to the Board and made sure that Mitropoulos was out of the running.”
Many composers of the time were out enough to live with another man: Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, and Aaron Copland among the most famous. Many works based on openly gay texts had long existed: Horatio Parker’s tone poem Vathek(1903), after William Beckford; The Ballad of Reading Gaol,by Jacques Ibert (1922); and gay rights pioneer John Addington Symonds’ These Things Shall Be, set by John Ireland in 1937.
Public knowledge of Bernstein’s homosexuality dates from Joan Peyser’s 1987 biography. I take no pleasure in pointing out the character flaws of an early hero of mine, but there is an obligation to the truth. Let there be justice for Mitropoulos, that truly magnanimous conductor whom Bernstein himself had extolled as a mentor.
Joseph Laibman, Ann Arbor, MI
My Life with Arch Brown
To the Editor:
I enjoyed Andrew Holleran’s article about Arch Brown and his memoir, A Pornographer, in the May-June issue. I was a witness to some of Arch’s early days in New York. He was Arni Krueger then, and living at 59 Greenwich Avenue in a large, all-white studio apartment on the parlor floor of a former townhouse. It had a wall of bookshelves, floor-to-ceiling windows facing Seventh Avenue, and a working fireplace with a mantle and surround of bricks painted white. His next-door neighbor was an ancient gentleman who had been the costume designer for the Ziegfeld Follies. Very aged former Follies “girls” would often visit him for tea and a viewing of his old costume designs.
Arni and I met on Greenwich Avenue in 1962. He was making a living designing and sewing women’s capes for his friend (Jan Wolman, I think) who owned Glad Rags, a women’s boutique. I was a student at NYU. I moved into Arni’s apartment, which soon grew too small for the two of us. We relocated to a two-bedroom apartment on the first floor of 71 West 12th Street and adopted a kitten we named Muffin, found at a construction site behind our building. The apartment was styled a “professional apartment,” which meant cheaper rent if you worked out of your home. It was available to us because of Arni’s small income from sewing capes. I was able to supplement our income from a family trust fund. Eventually, we grew apart and I took a job with Time Inc. and moved to an apartment on Central Park West with my new partner in 1965.
When I ran into Arni several years later, he was still making capes and other women’s attire and had returned to living in the Greenwich Avenue apartment. We lost touch after that, and in 1976 I moved with a division of Time Inc., to the D.C. area. In 1994, I was surprised to receive a letter from Arni/ Arch—who was then living in Arizona with a chap named Buck—asking if I was the same Jack Weiser he had known in the ’60s. I called him, and we renewed our friendship and kept in touch by letter and phone calls until he died in Palm Springs in 2012.
Jack Weiser, New York City