“An American Soldier.”

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“An American Soldier.”

Post by lennygoran » Thu Jun 14, 2018 5:59 am

A Soldier’s Racially Charged Suicide Becomes a Powerful Opera

By Anthony Tommasini

June 13, 2018

ST. LOUIS — “They can’t hear me,” the ghost of Pvt. Danny Chen sings desperately during the first scene of the new opera “An American Soldier.” “No one’s listening.” In real life, Private Chen, after months of vicious hazing and racist taunts, killed himself in 2011 at an army outpost in Afghanistan. He was 19.

The opera opens in the military court where a sergeant is being tried for negligent homicide in the death. The dead man’s ghost appears, trying to speak to those assembled there — including Private Chen’s suffering mother, who has come seeking justice — who can’t see or hear him. But thanks to the composer Huang Ruo and the playwright David Henry Hwang, the creators of this powerful work, we’re listening to him now.

Basing an opera on a recent historical event, especially a story fraught with racism, is risky. But “An American Soldier,” having its premiere in an expanded two-act version here at Opera Theater of St. Louis and seen on Saturday, is convincing, driven by Mr. Hwang’s rueful libretto and Mr. Huang’s arresting music. Turning what was a 60-minute chamber opera — seen in Washington, D.C., in 2014 — into a richly orchestrated two-hour work, the creators explore the complexities of Private Chen’s life and death, the tragic tale of a young Chinese-American man who just wanted to prove he was, as he sings, a “real American, an American soldier.”

The libretto situates the story at the trial but explains how we got there through a series of flashbacks rendered vividly in Matthew Ozawa’s strikingly spare production, with sets that slide on and off a shadowy stage. We see the teenage Danny (sung with raw emotion and poignant boyishness by the remarkable tenor Andrew Stenson) at home in New York’s Chinatown, making dinner with his beloved mother (the affecting mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu, in a remarkable performance), who is distressed to find out her son has enlisted. There are increasingly awful incidents at boot camp and in Afghanistan, where he endures vulgar hazing from his fellow soldiers and sadistic humiliations from the racist sergeant (the bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, who is chilling).

Elements of modernist atonality, Asian-inflected styles, jazz and eerie atmospheric noise course through the taut score. Yet you sense Mr. Huang in control of every detail. Whole stretches crackle with sputtering rhythms and skittish riffs. Strange, fractured fanfares, like would-be military marches, keep recurring. But during reflective passages, searching vocal lines are backed by tremulous harmonies and delicate instrumental flecks. Both the subtle colorings and pummeling intensity came through in the compelling performance the conductor Michael Christie drew from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Huang acutely charts emotional undercurrents in his music. During the first flashback, set on a fire escape, Danny chats with his cheerful, college-bound friend Josephine (the soprano Kathleen Kim). Her music is chirpy and kinetic, but weird chords and nervous bits rustling in the orchestra suggest that Josephine fears that his plan to enlist is dangerous. Similarly, the opera depicts a boot camp ritual called “Racial Thursdays,” when the soldiers were all but encouraged to hurl racist taunts at each another, the idea being that such venting would let off steam and boost morale. But in the opera, as these soldiers mask their barbs with comradely banter, Mr. Huang’s roiling music reveals the deep hatreds at play.

One late scene struck me as a miscalculation. At the trial, after the sergeant is cleared of the most serious charges, the judge (the earthy bass Nathan Stark) and a chorus of male and female soldiers sing “E pluribus unum; from the many, one.” With music that hints of Copland, Mr. Huang tries to rescue the trope of the affirming American anthem from triteness. But especially given the political climate of today, with anti-immigrant hostility being stoked by a divisive administration in Washington, it was hard to know what to make of this attempt at redemption. I wanted more bitterness and irony.

An American Soldier

Through June 24 at Opera Theater of St. Louis; 314-961-0644, opera-stl.org.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/13/arts ... collection

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