Opera explores death of a Chinese-American soldier

Updated: 2014-06-16 11:59

By Meng Lin in Washington (China Daily USA)

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The Washington National Opera (WNO) presented the world premiere of An American Soldier on June 13 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the WNO'sAmerican Opera Initiative.

David Paul directed this hour-long opera which is based on the true story of Pvt. Danny Chen of New York, a Chinese-American soldier stationed in Afghanistan. On Oct 3, 2011, Chen, 19, was found dead in a guard tower at his base in Kandahar province.Chen had been hazed and mistreated by Sgt. Aaron Marcum and other soldiers.

Drawing from the ensuing courts-martial of Chen's fellow soldiers, the opera presents a serious look at some of the circumstances behind his death which also illustrate a culture of racism that is occasionally brushed under the table in the military.

"This was definitely a rave for people to see that this does happen occasionally, and having this story being told was amazing," said college student Teddy McCullough after seeing the production.

The cast was led by tenor Andrew Stenson, a member of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, as Danny Chen. The opera featured music by composer Huang Ruo, a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and The Julliard School in New York.

"Huang Ruo's excellent use of the chamber orchestra is going to have a lot of interesting textures of colors that they (audience) are not used to hearing," said Michael Heaston, the director of the WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.

The piece begins slowly with a military-like procession entering the courtroom, followed by four choruses, and they remain onstage throughout the show, playing different characters. Lastly, Mother Chen and Sgt. Marcum enter the courtroom as part of the procession. As the trial goes on, Pvt. Chen's story unfolds.

The score, conducted by Steven Jarvi, started with chorus chanting "Wei-wu," a sound that is heard in a traditional Chinese courtroom before a trial begins to quiet the public. It evokes a bleak and terror-filled atmosphere with the blue-hued, low-key lighting. Each syllable is so stretched out that you feel intense pressure, and each builds a special emotional upheaval.

The libretto, by David Henry Hwang, draws from both American and Chinese culture, and makes a strong statement of the marriage of words and music. Hwang is a Tony Award-winning playwright (M. Butterfly, 1988).

"I want the audience have a very emotional experience, about a mother, whose son tries to serve this country, but he isn't well served by this country." Hwang said.

"Chen's story is quite essential to America. If art can't comment on social and political issues, then we have a problem," Heaston said. "