NEW YORK – Written as much out of social conscience as artistic need, Bound is not an opera that plays by the usual dramaturgical rules, nor does it want to.
From the opening moments, the central character spells out her plight directly to the audience in this new opera by composer Huang Ruo and librettist Bao-Long Chu, heard in its April 13 New York premiere by Fresh Squeezed Opera at Baruch Performing Arts Center. High school student Diane Tran is the bright bulb and hard worker in a Vietnamese family that’s transplanted to Texas but has pretty much disintegrated: Dad is off “chasing money we never see” and the PTSD-ridden mother has gone AWOL, leaving Diane to support her siblings with two jobs while making straight A’s.
The opera’s central conflict was inspired by newspaper headlines: “Diane Tran, Honor Student at Texas High School, Jailed for Missing School.” Yes, this really did happen in 2012 in a school outside of Houston, where Tran served a 24-hour jail sentence meant to be a harsh example to other kids missing school.
But where were the child welfare authorities? Didn’t anybody realize that being jailed for truancy only creates more truancy? These questions were asked in what became a national outcry that forced the judge to reverse his decision and prompted a $70,000 fund to be collected for Diane and her family. Unfortunately, the opera stops well short of this resolution; instead, Diane is boxed into a tragic fate, sort of like The Little Match Girl without an apotheosis.
Can Bound be accused of distorting history with its selective presentation of the facts? That thought arises. However, opera has never been a place for historical accuracy. And this 45-minute chamber work was premiered at the Houston Grand Opera, whose public no doubt knows Tran’s full real-life story. Bound probably arrived in New York on the strength of Ruo’s rising reputation (the premiere of a revised version of his An American Soldier was a hit at Opera Theater of St. Louis in 2018) plus the greater relevance of Diane’s immigration struggle in 2019 than in 2012.
The larger world outside Diane Tran, as depicted in the opera, is encapsulated by the dry cleaning shop in which she works: The production, directed by Ashley Tata with designs by Stephan Moravski and projections by David Bengali, creates a forest of clothes, plastic bags, and hangers decorated with the inscription “We love our customers,” though no love is to be found on the stage. Projected against the dry cleaning bags are a variety of video images, some symbolic (a wounded bird), others suggesting memories (Vietnamese refugees leaving their home country).
Such visuals match the broad-stroke approach of the opera. The judge, who is quoted from real-life news reports, slaps an extra contempt fine on Diane for talking back to him. Her employer at the dry cleaners is constantly telling her to move more quickly. In one scene, the jailed girl contemplates what her classmates are wearing to the prom. The audience is asked to feel nothing but pity for the girl. She deserves better.
Musically, this is not the Ruo who composed a brilliant East/West fusion in Path of Echoes: Chamber Symphony No. 1 or the charismatic singer to be found on YouTube giving electrifying renditions of his favorite Chinese folk songs. In a sense, the music embodies the title – Bound – by using an extremely restricted palette of expression. The opening monologue is characteristic of Ruo in that it balances the needs of the words with folk-like inflections, but only inflections.
More dramatically effective vocal writing is given to from Diane’s mom, Khanh, who appears in a dream-like sequence, ridden with guilt for abandoning her family. Rather obvious, though, are instrumental touches such as demure, koto-like effects juxtaposed against imposing lower brass as Diane faces off with the judge.
The resolution is that the girl becomes her own person, not bound to the old ways that even her parents aren’t really following. Yet the music that accompanies the final moments – blocks of dissonant chords suggesting no clear direction forward – doesn’t convince me that this realization gives her inner equilibrium and helps her to find her way out of this work/study miasma.
Certainly, the performers do their best with this faulty material. As Diane, Fang-Tao Jiang uses her attractive tone qualities to draw us into the difficult-to-hear truths that she conveys with mostly superb diction. Best of all is Guang Yang as mother Khanh, whose even more rich tone and intense sense of expression conveyed things beyond what the libretto’s words can say. I can imagine a more imposing conductor than Alex Wen, though he drew a good enough performance out of the ten-member ensemble.
Ultimately, one must ask what place Bound might have in the world. Obviously, it functions to keep the headlines alive (however limited the storytelling). Ruo, who has written operas about leaders in Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (premiered in the Santa Fe Opera’s 2014 season), has now turned his attention to working-class Asian immigrants.
Personally, I see that story played out in real life several times a week when I commute on the Chinese bus between New York (where I live) and Philadelphia (where I work): Restaurant workers get off amid fast-food strip malls outside of Philadelphia, and then, late at night, come home to Sunset Park in Brooklyn. I don’t know what keeps them going. But I imagine them feeling great affirmation from seeing Bound. Question is: Will they ever get a day off from work that would allow that to happen?