Soldier's struggles inspire birth of an opera

Updated: 2014-06-24 11:07

By Amy He in New York (China Daily USA)

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The death of US Army Private Danny Chen, a Chinese American, in 2011 is a story that remained in the back of playwright David Henry Hwang's mind, but when he was approached about writing a play about it, he didn't feel like he could apply his best efforts to it in such a format.

But Chen's life and suicide, widely reported to be the result of his military superiors' racism, was a worthy one to tell, he said. So when the Washington National Opera commissioned composer Huang Ruo and Hwang was asked to be a librettist, he pitched the Chen story and got both Huang and the Washington National Opera on board with the idea.

"This was a story that remained in the back of my mind because it was an important story, but I just didn't know how to do it until this idea of doing it as an opera came along," Hwang told China Daily on Monday in New York. "It's a pretty blatant example of racism and so I feel like when I do a play, I'd like there to be some degree of ambiguity, some irony, and I didn't really feel that so much with this story."

But translating the story into an opera allowed Hwang to work better "with emotions, big stories, and primary colors", which he felt the Chen story had. An American Soldier, which premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington on June 13, is a fictional account of the court-martial of Chen's superiors involved with the hazing of the 19-year-old during his short time serving in Afghanistan.

An American Soldier is one of Hwang's latest works that depict the lives and identities of Asian Americans, his most recent other work being a play on the life of Bruce Lee. Hwang, a California native who is now based in Brooklyn with his wife and two children, has worked as a playwright for almost 35 years, seeing opportunities in the theater landscape for Asian Americans that didn't exist when he first started.

"Thirty years ago, even the whole Asian American term was still, people didn't know that," he said. "The idea of Asian American theater, nobody even within the theater knew names of plays or playwrights, where at the moment I think there's a really fertile crop of young Asian-American writers."

Asian-American representation has been slow to solidify in theater and on Broadway, but "no slower" than that in television and film, and may perhaps yield more meaningful roles for Asian-American actors than what can be found in Hollywood, Hwang said.

Soldier's struggles inspire birth of an opera

"It certainly is easier to make a living, by and large, in film and television, but that's true for writers too. There's just more money in film and television. Let's say you're an Asian actor and you live in LA and you basically do film and television. It's probably easier to sustain yourself and you're probably going to be playing a lot of small parts, many of which are stereotypical," he said. "I think if you live in New York and you work in theater and you're an Asian American actor, I think the work that you do - you may not work as often, but I think the work that you do will be more satisfying by and large, but you're not going to make that much money, because you don't make that much money doing theater, period."

There are fewer roles available in theater for Asian-American actors, but the ones that are available are more substantial, he said. Not-for-profit theater has made a conscious effort to increase diversity, but "nobody really knows how to do it yet, so the results are not very good", Hwang said, referring to a 2012 report from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition showing that 80 percent of all theater show roles go to white performers, compared to the 13 percent African American and 2 percent Asian American.

 Soldier's struggles inspire birth of an opera

Playwright David Henry Hwang wrote the libretto for the recently premiered opera An American Soldier. Amy He / China Daily

(China Daily USA 06/24/2014 page2)