Review: The tragic story of 'An American Soldier' comes home

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Review: The tragic story of 'An American Soldier' comes home
In an undated image provided by Marc J Franklin, Brian Vu, center, and Alex DeSocio, right, in “An American Soldier” at the Perelman Performing Arts Center in New York. An opera about Danny Chen, an Army private who died by suicide after experiencing racist hazing while serving, was performed in New York, his hometown. (Marc J Franklin via The New York Times)

by Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK, NY.- Thirteen years have passed since Danny Chen, an Army private from New York, killed himself while serving in Afghanistan after experiencing brutal hazing and racist taunts from fellow soldiers. “An American Soldier,” the opera based on his story, has been seen in Washington, D.C., and St. Louis.

But when the work had its run in Missouri, in 2018, Huang Ruo, its composer, and David Henry Hwang, its librettist, promised Chen’s family that they would try to bring it home to the city where he was born and raised. Last week, they succeeded, as “An American Soldier” was produced at the Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center — just a mile or so from Chinatown, where Chen grew up and where a stretch of Elizabeth Street was renamed Private Danny Chen Way in 2014.

In Chay Yew’s clearheaded production, with an excellent cast, the touching opera had little trouble making its impact at the performance on Saturday evening. Huang and Hwang’s piece is a straightforward Chinese American family drama, but one with obvious, shameful resonances about the treatment of Asian people and other minorities in this country, and the limits on American ideals of the embrace of difference and easy assimilation.

The piece opens on the court-martial of a brutal sergeant who was Chen’s chief antagonist. It then alternates between the courtroom and the chronological unfolding of Chen’s story, from the first glimmers of his idea to join the Army — an effort to prove that he was a “real American” — through the camaraderie of basic training, his endurance of racism at his next post and his nightmarish treatment once he reaches Afghanistan. His mother is a tender presence in her scenes at home with her beloved son, and a figure of fury and hurt during the court-martial, which resulted in the sergeant’s being found not guilty of the most serious charges.

The version of “An American Soldier” that premiered at Washington National Opera in 2014 was a single act of just an hour. By 2018, at Opera Theater of Saint Louis, the piece had added an act and doubled in length, delving more deeply into Chen’s life beyond the account of the sergeant’s trial. With some tweaks, this is the work that was performed at the Perelman Center, in a version it commissioned with Boston Lyric Opera.

Whether calmly undulating under an impassioned duet or anxiously sputtering as the plot darkens, Huang’s music tends to simmer out of the spotlight, allowing the storytelling to come to the fore. But there are some idiosyncratic touches in the score, like the almost ritualistic percussion hovering under some passages and the fractured trumpet — a kind of stifled fanfare — near the end, when there is an ironic choral paean to the American motto “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”).

As with many contemporary operas, some trouble emerges from the libretto: Hwang’s text is so stodgily prosy that it tends to drag the vocal lines into monotony. The feeling much of the time is of a spoken play that’s being heatedly and somewhat awkwardly sung.

Daniel Ostling’s set, starkly lit by Jeanette Yew, was an ominously blank white box, with the back wall a screen for projections that swiftly shifted scenes, allowing for quick changes from New York City rooftops to the mountains of Afghanistan. Linda Cho’s costumes were simple and effective.

Tenor Brian Vu easily held the stage as Danny with his focused, transparent voice, unstrained even in the high notes that express the extremity of the character’s situation. His performance was sympathetic but unsentimental; Vu made clear Danny’s teenage braggadocio alongside his abundant charm, as well as his quietly mounting desperation.

Hannah Cho’s lucid soprano soared alongside him as Josephine, Danny’s friend — and maybe more — in New York. (While the drama’s focus is on the mother-son relationship, at the Perelman Center the more powerful connection was this budding, tragically curtailed romance.)

Nina Yoshida Nelsen, her mezzo-soprano mellow, stuttered with rage and softly sang lullabies as Mother Chen. Baritone Alex DeSocio was a boomingly hateful presence as the racist, sadistic sergeant. Bass-baritone Christian Simmons, playing characters including a military judge and Danny’s fellow soldier, was a rich-toned standout amid a generally strong six-person supporting ensemble.

Good and bad are drawn in “An American Soldier” with old-fashioned plainness — and, indeed, for all its contemporary subject matter, the opera embraces traditional conventions of the art form, with arias, duets, trios and even a drinking chorus, just like in “Otello.”

The work’s connections to the standard repertory made it even sweeter that it was put on at all, at a time when full opera productions are ever rarer in New York. Just about the only venue for material like “An American Soldier” has been the annual Prototype festival of contemporary music theater, so it is heartening to see the Perelman Center fill even a bit of the gap.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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