Chinese-American Kid Chases U.S. Army Life: Devastation As Opera

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Private Danny Chen (tenor Brian Vu) is an ordinary American kid crushed by hate in the new opera ‘An American Soldier’ by composer Huang Ruo and librettist David Henry Huang. (Production photos: Marc J. Franklin)

NEW YORK — In spite of his enthusiasm for joining the army right out of high school, Private Danny Chen was found dead in the guard house at his posting in Afghanistan in 2011, apparently driven to suicide by the ruthless, violent bullying from his sergeant and fellow soldiers. In An American Soldier, a world-premiere opera seen on May 12th at the Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC) in Manhattan, composer Huang Ruo and librettist David Henry Hwang turned this devastating news story into a morality tale about bigotry in general and anti-Asian hate in particular.

Sung in English with a smattering of Chinese, the opera uses the sergeant’s military trial as a structural device, starting and ending with it, and returning to it many times throughout the two-hour, two-act work. If this were a play, that idea might have been more effective, with witness testimony in the trial allowing easy segues to earlier moments in Chen’s life. As an opera, though, it was a liability.

Because the libretto opened with the traumatic atmosphere of the trial (charges included negligent homicide and physical abuse), the music also started at the highest level of angst. It then rarely relaxed. The orchestral writing was overwhelmingly busy and rhythmically stormy, almost without relief. By the time the tale had reached Afghanistan, where Chen’s real troubles began, the listener was already emotionally exhausted. There was nowhere for the intensity to climb.

Composer Huang Ruo (Max Lee photo)

This is not to say that the music was not well crafted; it simply was not dramatically balanced. Ruo is an exceptional orchestrator with a global ear for tone color. One of the first sounds heard is a digeridoo, whose other-worldly grumble recurs throughout the opera. While there are moments that seem pentatonic and some percussive passages with a Chinese tinge, this work cannot be classified as primarily East-Asian in sound. Indeed, that’s part of the opera’s point: Racists keep asking Chen if he’s from China, to which he replies, “I’m from China…town, in New York City.” He’s not Chinese; he’s American.

As the effervescent Chen, whose spirit takes so long to crush, tenor Brian Vu was of an appropriate scale: Neither his voice nor his presence are massive, but as an ordinary American kid — by no means a hero — he was ideal. His grin and energy were more important than his (albeit impressive) range, which made his destruction all the more devastating.

There is a lot of fine writing for women; it was only in female-led scenes that Ruo’s frenetic energy slowed momentarily. As Chen’s high school pal and potential girlfriend, Josephine, clear-voiced soprano Hannah Cho came across as a wise, patient teen, acting as the only link between the adventurous Chen and his baffled immigrant mother. Cho sang some moving duets with Vu — one before Chen enlisted, as they told each other their dreams on a Chinatown rooftop at night; and one near the end of his life, when, on different continents, they each long for the innocence of that rooftop and the moon that lit it.

Friend Josephine (soprano Hannah Cho) and Mother Chen (mezzo-soprano Nin Yoshida Nelsen) share news of Danny.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen, a powerhouse mezzo-soprano, was Mother Chen, communicating her heartbreak and fury in some of the opera’s finest melodic passages. Because of the constant high tension, however, what should have been light, funny moments between the mother and Josephine were lost in the ever-roiling orchestral sea.   

In a smaller role, Shelén Hughes was outstanding as Private Sonja Gonzalez, testifying as to the horrific treatment minorities and women often cover up in order to save their military careers. Christian Simmons used his rich bass-baritone to rule over the court proceedings as the judge, and later showing true acting skills, appearing in camouflage to testify as a private who had experienced racial abuse from the same sergeant as Chen. The sneering voice of Alex DeSocio brought to life that vile creature, Sgt. Aaron Marcum.

Chen is subjected to horrific treatment by Sgt. Aaron Marcum (baritone Alex DeSocio).

Ruo provided some beautiful vocal-ensemble writing, sung by members of the cast (there was no separate chorus). Most striking musically was the polyphonic “E pluribus unum,” at Chen’s funeral. It’s unfortunate that Hwang’s text listing all the specific factions of society who need to get along in America was heavy-handed and literal rather than being as sweepingly poetic as the music it was set to.

Chay Yew’s stage direction is clever and efficient, allowing for free flow from courtroom to Mother Chen’s kitchen, to Afghanistan and back. All of that is achieved with almost no sets (a kitchen table, a few sandbags, not much else). The stage remains a big, empty box reshaped scene by scene thanks to Jeanette Yew’s lighting and Nicholas Hussong’s projections.

In the pit was the American Composers Orchestra (ACO), exactly the band you want for complex new orchestral music, in this instance under the masterful baton of Carolyn Kuan. The orchestra, which was listed as co-producer along with Boston Lyric Opera, never seemed daunted by the score’s endless motion and intricate rhythms, and never flagged in energy or focus. In those few blessed moments of quietude, their sound changed to an ethereal aching or a naïve sweetness. After the first performance, the entire orchestra (more than 30 members) came onstage to take a bow. Fair enough: Every one of them had earned it.

An American Soldier continues through May 19 at PAC NYC. For tickets and information, go here.