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. "It's important that we take risks, and that we confront the difficult issues with the opera art form."

This "smart production" in terms of being able to convey many different locations from Chinatown, New York all the way to Kandahar, Afghanistan, is worth highlighting. It does not rhyme as classical operas do, but is very well done.

"I don't even need to explore myself too much for the role," said Guang Yang, winner of the 1997 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, who stars as mother Chen. "It all came out natural," she noted even though she is not a mother.

"When I was composing the lullaby that you hear in the opera, I had my own child," Huang Ruo said. "I would sing that lullaby to my child - feeling the resonance and sympathy."

Without any barrier between the audience and the actors, this form of opera conveys abundant emotional touch and an incredible impact, as art sets the aesthetic principles by which people perceive life.

"Whether he (Pvt. Chen) suffered from something, we'll never know. He never talked about it," said Michael Yeh after seeing the performance. His son is an Asian-American soldier with the same goal as Danny Chen, which is to serve his country as a true American.

"Danny Chen was a very unfortunate case," said Diana Yeh with tears in her eyes. "I truly believe that there are many other very good people too."

The 2011 suicide of Pvt. Chen motivated the Organization of Chinese Americans to campaign for reforms to address the issue of military hazing. President Obama signed the Service Member Anti-Hazing Act in January 2013.

Contact the writer at readers@chinadailyusa.com

For China Daily

 Opera explores death of a Chinese-American soldier

Andrew Stenson plays Danny Chen in An American Soldier. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily USA 06/16/2014 page3)