SEATTLE — “Bound” is a multi-layered word that can go in boundless directions: bound to tradition, bound to the law, bound to the past, bound to duty, bound to family, bound to conflicting values.
The one-act, 60-minute opera Bound, playing through June 18 (I saw it June 10) at Seattle Opera’s intimate Tagney Jones Hall, touches on all those meanings. The opera is based on the 2012 true story of second-generation Vietnamese American, straight-A honor student Diane Tran, stunningly sung by up-and-coming lyric soprano Karen Vuong, who was hand-picked for the role by Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo. Vuong had the vocal flexibility to sing the role and the acting ability to play an adolescent 20 years younger than she actually is.
Unlike Vuong, who grew up with vigilant immigrant parents in Los Angeles, Tran was abandoned by hers while attending high school near Houston. When her parents left, she worked two jobs to support her younger brothers and herself while pressuring herself to keep up her grades. The clincher and the impetus for the story? She was sentenced to jail and fined $100 for missing too much school due to her jobs.
The opera premiered in 2014 at Houston Grand Opera, which commissioned it and asked composer Ruo to keep it short. Its main purpose, other than musical entertainment and enrichment, was to reach out to other cultures, especially the Vietnamese community. Bound was part of a Houston Grand Opera series designed to make contact with Houston-area immigrant groups.
Ruo did keep it short, and the opera could have been longer, as engaging as it was and as vibrant as the music is. It is lacking in details we long to know. Where is the father? How are 17-year-old Diane’s little brothers faring? How does Diane navigate school peers? Why can’t she feel at home when she is so competent, responsible, hardworking, smart, and speaks flawless English?
But “nothing is simple,” sings her mother Khanh (mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen). “Forgetting is not easy,” she adds, trying to explain her difficult past in Vietnam that she left for the United States, and her reasons for leaving her family once she was in America.
The last point regarding feeling at home fuels Ruo’s underlying questions about second-generation immigrants, his raison d’etre for writing this opera and several other short pieces, including the The Rift, about Vietnamese Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin, which premiered in 2021 during the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary. He also wrote the music for An American Soldier, about a second-generation Chinese-American soldier who commits suicide in the military. That opera debuted as a one-act in 2014 at the Kennedy Center and was later expanded into a two-act piece in 2018 for Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Ruo has plans to pair The Rift and Bound, mother-daughter operas that speak to two generations.
“We can only reflect on history, as artists, and hope that history will not repeat itself. But it does,” Ruo said in a June phone interview. “When we feel we 100 percent belong, we can answer questions. Otherwise, we have to ask them.”
Then again, perhaps the opera’s short duration was necessary to reach new operagoers and those unfamiliar with multi-cultural “new music,” which includes a lot of operagoers and music lovers.
The score is anything but classically operatic or tuneful in the tradition of the European canon. It is a mix of East and West sounds, accompanied by traditional Vietnamese instruments, such as the đàn bầu, which sounds uncannily like the human voice, and the đàn tranh, a 16-string zither with the power to capture the sensation of the ocean, the endlessness and constancy of water present in so many immigrants’ journeys. San Francisco musician Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ played both, and Li-Tan Hsu accompanied on piano. The minimalist instrumentation, practical for touring, captured the sound and color that Ruo was after, he said, though the Houston debut of Bound featured more instruments, including strings and brass.
In Seattle, Ruo conducted his music infused with a haunting libretto by Vietnamese-American Houston-based poet Bao-Long Chu. Constructed in several scenes, the opera opens with Diane’s night in jail, where Vuong sings her first “Blackbird” aria in her soaring, assured lyric soprano. Other scenes show her in ghostly interactions with her long-gone traumatized mother, Khanh, who visits Diane in jail and elsewhere, performing Buddhist rituals, lamenting her ancestors and horrific struggles in Vietnam, and justifying her bailing on the family due to her traumatic past.
Dressed traditionally, unlike Diane in her jeans and hoodie, Khanh always carries a piece of cheap luggage and moves like a shadow person, accompanied often by the spooky đàn bau that reinforces her vague, unreachable quality. The interactions between the mother and daughter are fraught with emotion, but for me, it was hard to feel too deeply for the mother despite the traumatic past to which she is bound, because we don’t expect mothers to abandon their children as she did. The lack of sympathy was neither the fault of the music nor the libretto, but something far more visceral. “But you are not here to stay,” sings the distraught and lonely Diane.
As the opera progresses, Diane asks herself and the world, “Truant or beggar?” She is frustrated, torn yet determined, and at one point before her life came crashing down when her parents left, she was under under the illusion that her immigrant family “was happy,” inching its way toward the American dream. But as in any good story, things go awry, and she lives a nightmare, not a sweet dream.
Diane doesn’t have time to think about prom dresses after class, like her fellow Texas students. Instead, she labors all day in a dry cleaner run by an unsympathetic boss, Stanley, sung urgently and clearly by Seattle bass-baritone Daniel Klein, doubling as the harsh by-the-book Texas Judge Moriarty who hands out Diane’s sentence.
In the dry-cleaner scene, Stanley sings, “Quick! quick. You are too slow!” prodding Diane to stuff more shirts into the plastic bags, though she complains of 24-hour exhaustion. When he asks Diane to open the shop the next day, she argues that she has a big test and will be charged with truancy if she misses school. He ignores her and tells her he has a court date concerning his divorce, adding, ‘‘Ha, living the American dream!” He scoffs sarcastically, and then as he leaves the scene, you can hear his sobs. Even he, a white guy, doesn’t have the American dream formula.
Directed by Seattle’s Desdemona Chiang and designed scenically by Carey Wong, the opera was an almost all Asian-American effort. I wish there had been subtitles. Some of the poetry-packed arias and duets were tough to understand, though sung in English. Every opera needs subtitles, but the budget or time apparently prevented that from happening. Otherwise, the piece was a valiant step forward in advancing American opera with a story about a real-life community with dilemmas unfamiliar to many Americans.