Story: Danny Chen was a high school senior whose academic excellence brought college scholarship opportunities to him. But, while his friend Josephine intends to study subjects for a professional job which will please her parents, Danny wants instead to join the U.S. Army in preparation for an eventual career with the New York City Police Department.
Knowing that his mother will disapprove, Danny instead informs her after the fact at their home in Manhattan’s Chinatown district that upon high school graduation he has enlisted in the Army. With Danny’s sharp intellect and academic success his mother is disappointed in his decision, but nonetheless supports her son.
In 2011 Danny travels to Fort Benning, Georgia for basic training in pursuit of his dream to be treated like an American rather than someone considered Chinese. He meets many diverse enlistees in basic training, but his life changes drastically when he subsequently is sent to Fort Wainwright, Alaska prior to being deployed to Afghanistan.
At Fort Wainwright Danny and others are subjected to “Racial Thursdays,” when cadets are allowed to denigrate minorities with vulgarities and other demeaning words to “build morale” among the troops. Danny’s condition worsens in Afghanistan, where bigoted platoon leaders such as Sergeant Aaron Marcum and other soldiers mercilessly haze him with severe verbal and physical abuse.
When the Army reports in October 2011 that Private Chen has committed suicide, his mother refuses to believe that her son could commit such an act. Several military personnel, including Marcum, are court-martialed on a number of offenses relating to Danny’s death. Witnesses both for the prosecution and the defense offer conflicting testimony about Danny’s treatment as the trial reaches its conclusion and verdicts.
Highlights: As part of its New Works, Bold Voices series, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis commissioned the world premiere of this affecting, well-performed piece written by composer Huang Ruo and librettist David Henry Hwang. The true story of its source material is elevated with this poetic and profound interpretation.
Other Info: Written originally as a one-act, 60-minute chamber opera by Ruo and Hwang, An American Soldier debuted at Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative in June 2014. OTSL General Director Timothy O’Leary then commissioned Ruo and Hwang to expand An American Soldier into a two-act, fully-staged opera. That version debuted at Opera Theatre on Sunday, June 3, 2018 to great acclaim by its audience.
The two-hour, 15-minute work opens to a bare stage, which then slowly is filled with performers in a courtroom scene at the court martial of Marcum, with the spirit of Danny hovering throughout, asking “Can we go back?”
Set designer Andrew Boyce presents a variety of settings, including a large American flag in the back of the courtroom, a rotating stage which allows various views of the prosecution and defense, and a stair grid where high schoolers Danny and Josephine discuss their futures.
The set is further embellished by a background screen on which video designer Greg Emitaz projects scenes as tranquil as the solitary Afghan countryside or the ugly appearance of angry faces hurtling insults at Danny.
Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind poignantly illuminates sundry scenes, while Gregory Gale’s costumes are customarily military, both fatigues and dress wear, for the Army personnel, while Josephine, Mother Chen and high school Danny are in civilian garb. Tom Watson adds wig and makeup design and Sean Curran provides brief bits of choreography, while Shaun Sheley’s fight choreography offers some frighteningly convincing hazing moments.
Stage director Matthew Ozawa, in consort with co-stage director James Robinson, maintains an affecting pace which focuses on the many disturbing and tragic elements in Chen’s true story. Part of the reason that the opera is so well told is that multi-faceted scenic design as well as the fine performances elicited by Ozawa from his uniformly splendid cast.
Tenor Andrew Stenson reprises his role from the Washington Opera chamber version with a moving, haunting performance as Danny Chen. He persuasively portrays Danny as a young man determined to be an “American” just like any other resident of the USA, a 19-year-old kid whose life was cut cruelly short by intolerance allowed to fester in the Armed Forces. His smooth voice adds to the strength of his role.
Mezzo-soprano Mike Shigematsu makes her Opera Theatre debut (as does Stenson) with a powerfully compelling interpretation of the quiet and reserved Mother Chen, whose own life is shattered by the death of her son but who fights to clear his name. Her mournful recitatives underscore the sadness of the story.
Soprano Kathleen Kim also makes her OTSL debut with a fine performance as Danny’s trusted friend Josephine, who recites Danny’s letters to Mother Chen, who doesn’t read English, embellishing them in a positive fashion whenever she can.
Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges effectively handles the role of the villainous lout Marcum, representing the criminal hazing and hatred of Marcum’s lone Chinese recruit, while Nathan Stark lends his deep bass to the part of the presiding military judge.
Conductor Michael Christie and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra finely convey Ruo’s difficult, sometimes atonal score, which suitably reflects the forlorn nature of the story. It does also have a few uplifting moments sprinkled throughout, including a touching song reflecting the national motto, E pluribus unum (From many, one), near the conclusion.
Opera Theatre’s New Works, Bold Voices series in the last several years has introduced a number of notable works, including Champion, 27 and Shalimar the Clown. Add An American Soldier to that list of impressive achievements.
Opera: An American Soldier
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: June 6, 9 (m), 14, 16, 22
Tickets: $25-$129; contact 961-0644 or www.ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard