By Lynn Venhaus
The tragic true tale of Army Private Danny Chen is tough stuff. Presented as a blistering, stark modern opera, “An American Soldier” was commissioned at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, as part of their “New Works, Bold Voices” series.
This two-act 27th world premiere at OTSL is a powerful, painful commentary, not only involving racism and military hazing, but also cultural identity, patriotism, belonging and a strong mother-son relationship.
Nineteen-year-old Chen, the American-born son of Chinese immigrants, committed suicide on Oct. 3, 2011, after being horribly harassed with relentless racial slurs and physically tortured by servicemen while serving in Afghanistan.
The true story is that eight white soldiers were charged in connection with his death, including assault, negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter. Serious charges were dropped, but the men were court-martialed from other charges. On the day of his death, Chen was forced to crawl 330 feet to the guard tower, then they threw rocks at him before his 8 a.m. shift.
This disturbing account is as stinging as a bandage being ripped from a wound, and one can imagine the pain of his family at the injustice of a military tribunal and a ‘look the other way’ mentality that composer Huang Ruo and Tony-winning librettist David Henry Hwang emphasize.
In fact, the family was there for the world premiere.
Chen had inscribed “Tell my parents I’m sorry” on his arm. Over the course of the play, we see this happy-go-lucky young man change, and it’s heartbreaking.
“An American Soldier” is a raw reminder of urgent issues in contemporary American society, and indeed a very American story. The U.S. motto “E Pluribus, Unum” – “Out of many, one” is used for dramatic effect.
As horrifying as the second act was, that’s when the material fully engaged. The first act spent much time setting up Danny (Andrew Stenson) as an earnest student who believed in the American Dream, and his mother Su Zhen Chen’s thoughts and feelings, that it was rather draggy and dull.
Chen, born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown, could have attended Baruch College on a full scholarship, but was bored with school. At 18, he was compelled to serve his country, despite the misgivings of his mother (Mika Shigematsu) and the opera’s fictional friend Josephine (Kathleen Kim).
How could Chen have known that he would face such hardships as an Asian-American, and run into racists who did not hide their contempt for minorities? In this opera, a composite figure, Sgt. Aaron Marcum, is the sadistic bigoted commanding officer.
Super-villain Wayne Tigges was loudly booed at curtain call, and you’d be hard-pressed not to be outraged by his behavior, and how little justice perpetrators received for their actions.
The brutal treatment is hard to watch, and Stenson does a remarkable job going through the emotional wringer as Danny.
Stenson’s acting ability matches his vocal prowess, and you feel his anguish in every solo. His passionate, pleading aria is gut-wrenching.
Shigematsu is less effective as the mother, although her torment is equally palpable. She got off to a rocky start in the opening act, and some of the music was garbled.
Faring well was beautifully-voiced Kim as Josephine. Her duet with Stenson in the second act is one of the poignant highlights. Also impressive was Nathan Stark as the Military Judge.
The original operatic music in the opening act had a monotonous sameness about it that was unappealing. It was only as the melodrama ramped up that the score engaged.
Hwang’s libretto is unusual in its frankness and shock value. The profanity is intense, and so are the racial slurs – much of the language is wince-inducing. It’s rare that an opera captures bigotry in such a harsh, unsettling manner.
The story is interpreted through flashbacks, and that device is sometimes awkward. The finale is hard-hitting, although drawn out.
The production elements are quite strong, with the ever-present courtroom shape-shifting at times, and video designer Greg Emetaz projected images for a bigger patriotic-duty presence. Andrew Boyce’s innovative scenic design, of movable cages, hi-rise apartments, military barracks and guard towers was effective in setting the scenes for maximum dramatic impact.
Lighting Designer Christopher Ackerlind’s work is always of the utmost quality and one of every show’s highlights, but here, it has added an emotional resonance.
Also noteworthy was Shaun Sheley’s fight choreography.
As a new work, additional changes could result in a tighter, more absorbing production. Directors Matthew Ozawa and James Robinson (also dramaturg) needed to give us more insight in the first act.
Michael Christie capably conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, but this score felt like more appropriate background music.
The finale is where Shigematsu breaks your heart as the grieving mother. We feel her pain.
If “An American Soldier” prevents further incidents, that would be quite an impact. It’s a story that should be told.
Opera Theater took a risk to get this produced, and hopefully it continues the dialogue.
“An American Soldier” is performed six times – June 3, 6, 9, 14, 16 and 22 at the Loretto Hilton Center on Webster University’s campus, 130 Edgar Road. Tickets are available online at www.experienceopera.org, by calling the OTSL box office at 314-961-0644, or the box office.
OTSL Photos by Ken Hamilton