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'An American Soldier' Gets Its Premiere

An American Soldier, Washington National Opera, American Opera Initiative (photo by Scott Suchman)

The Washington National Opera's American Opera Initiative continues its mission, to present new American operas on American themes. After Approaching Ali in 2013, the program presented its second hour-long opera on Friday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Called An American Soldier, the libretto by David Henry Hwang takes up the real life, anguish, and death of a 19-year-old U.S. Army private named Danny Chen, set to music by Huang Ruo. The Chinese-American composer also chose a historical subject for Dr. Sun Yat-sen, which will have its American premiere this summer at Santa Fe Opera.

The U.S. Army's investigation into the events surrounding Chen's death was reported in the New York Times and elsewhere. The case, which involved brutal and racist hazing by Chen's fellow soldiers, echoed similar cases of anti-Asian racism in the military, a disturbing trend that in the same year had also led to the suicide of an Asian-American Marine, Lance Cpl. Harry Lew. The unflinching eye of journalism revealed the facts of these cases, spread word of them, and soon enough anti-hazing legislation was being passed through Congress.

Why make these events into an opera? Huang told an interviewer that opera is "not just entertainment," adding that “It’s a way to fulfill a social duty for society — in this case, to bring more awareness about what happened to Danny and somehow to help spread the word and also to really see what we can learn from this tragedy.” That sounds pretty boring as an evening in the theater, and that is pretty much the feeling left by this new work when all was said and done. The opera fails as journalism, since you would get a more balanced understanding of the events by reading the articles in the New York Times -- where you would find out, as you do not in the opera, that according to testimony at the military trials, Chen was scheduled for a transfer away from his unit, "because he was struggling to satisfy his responsibilities as an infantryman." History has to become art, in the way that makes the opera more than just a recounting of some of the facts, in a way like what make the assassination of Gustave III into Un ballo in maschera or the Moscow Uprising of 1682 into Khovanshchina.

Other Articles:

Hansi Lo Wang, An Opera Remembers The Tragedy Of An Asian-American Soldier (NPR, June 13)
It's a shame because Ruo showed some savvy in his handling of the orchestra, creating all sorts of interesting sounds with his ensemble of thirteen instruments, by comparison to other works heard recently. The score opens with an ominous drumbeat, and the players are called on to create keening sounds, at times almost like a didgeridoo, that go with the clatter of percussion and the wordless howl of an unseen chorus. In fact, Ruo sometimes goes overboard in his use of the pit, pushing the singers to extremes at times -- an issue for the otherwise fine young tenor Andrew Stenson as Danny Chen, not so much for the robust mezzo-soprano Guang Yang as his mother. Soloman Howard sang with menacing authority as the judge at the military tribunal, which forms the backdrop for most of the opera, although it was a confusing mistake also to have him sing the role of one of the testifying soldiers. Baritone Trevor Scheunemann was vicious in the role of Sgt. Marcum, presented here as the ringleader of the hazing soldiers, and baritone Andrew McLaughlin made the best of several supporting roles.

Steven Jarvi held the performance together admirably from the podium, negotiating some complicated coordination between stage and pit. The production directed by David Paul helped tell the story effectively, with set pieces that slid in from both sides to present recollections of the past (sets by Paul Taylor). Unfortunately, composer and librettist spend too much time having the characters explain their actions and feelings, which is a confusion of how a novel tells a story and how a stage work does, and the most dramatic moment, the offstage gunshot that ends Chen's life, is deflated by the choice to have the work end instead on a lovely but out-of-place duet between mother and son. A lot of effort is spent on fueling our outrage at the racism of the hazing soldiers -- a catalog of Asian slurs, and let's throw in the N-word, for kicks -- but opera should aim for emotions beyond political outrage, which take a back seat here. It is a problem that is a regular part of the vogue, at least since Nixon in China, for "ripped from the headlines" story lines in new operas.

This performance repeats this afternoon (June 14, 2 pm) in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

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