An American Opera for Troubled Times: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Premieres ‘An American Soldier’
In 2011, Private Danny Chen was killed in the line of duty—or at least, that’s one way to tell the story. Another way to tell it is that Private Chen committed suicide at the top of a guard tower one terrible night in southern Afghanistan. Still another way to tell it is that the 19-year-old recruit was driven to suicide after months of brutal, racially charged hazing at the hands of his fellow soldiers, and that his death was equal parts a senseless tragedy and a deliberate crime.
But perhaps the best way to hear Danny’s story is to hear it sung.
“An American Soldier,” which opened in a newly expanded two-act edition on Sunday, June 3 at Opera Theater of Saint Louis (210 Hazel Avenue,  961-0171), takes on the daring task of documenting the life (and afterlife) of Private Chen through the unlikely medium of English-language opera. And while the genre is certainly known for tackling grand tragedies to sweeping, melodramatic effect, OTSL’s exploration of Chen’s untimely death gives audiences something more rare: a gritty, moving, and documentary-sharp take on what it means to die for the country you love, even when your country doesn’t always love you back.
Born in New York City to Chinese parents, the real-life Chen and his opera counterpart both made the shocking decision to pass up a full college scholarship and enlist in the U.S. Army, against his adoring mother’s wishes—and without her knowledge. In librettist David Henry Hwang’s hands, Chen comes to his decision out of a mix of teenage naiveté—this is the only opera where you’re likely to see a character sing his love of first-person-shooter video-game franchise “Call of Duty”—and a painfully earnest desire to be recognized as the proud American he is. But once he’s donned his fatigues and shipped out to basic, Danny learns quickly that the military culture he’s been plunged into operates on systems of initiation rather than inclusion, grinding recruits down, rather than building them up or binding them together.
And those rites of passage can take horrific forms. Explicitly sanctioned “Racial Thursdays” are sold as a harmless morale booster for restless soldiers; Chen’s fellow privates bleat his name like goats and openly hurl racist stereotypes. Jealous sergeants exorcise their anger at a country that’s left them without power or opportunities outside the battlefield by humiliating and brutalizing their underlings. Soon, Chen realizes he hasn’t joined a band of brothers: he’s signed up for constant torment. And that’s before the worst of his tortures.
If that sounds unrelenting, it can be. But director Matthew Ozawa’s commitment to telling the raw truth of Chen’s story doesn’t subtract from the astonishing stagecraft and surprising beauty of the production, which transports the audience from Chinatown to Afghanistan to the inner world of his characters’ passions and grief.
The opera begins in a harsh, fluorescent-lit courtroom that serves as the opera’s constant backdrop—the judge remains onstage for the entire 120 minutes of the production, deliberating the re-enactment of Chen’s treatment as well as the reactions of the audience beyond the lip of the stage. But as the story slips back in time, a video projector transforms the space simply by throwing images of Afghan mountains and Alaskan wilderness and New York City skylines against the wall. When Chen’s mother listens to her son’s tormentors’ testimonies and reels with fury and grief, the rotating stage literally reels with her. When Danny and long-distance love interest Josephine break into a heart-rending cross-Atlantic duet, they’re briefly united as the beams of their spotlights find each other downstage, even as the chain-link fence of Danny’s military compound towers above them both. Visually, “An American Soldier” is a study in contrasts: a sterile courtroom counterposed against a mother’s naked agony, the longing of two lovers across vast distances, somehow drawn together on an intimate Webster Groves stage.
The music of “Soldier” also embraces this breed of juxtaposition. If you’re relatively new to opera, you’ll encounter fewer harmony-rich choruses than you might expect; often, composer Huang Ruo is more interested in contrasting his lead performer Andrew Stenson’s delicate, melting tenor with the kind of anxious, frenzied orchestrations that make the listener feel Danny Chen’s anxiety deep in their own skin. Hwang cites jazz, Western avant-garde and Chinese folk music as influences. Even opera diehards might not expect his orchestra, which features a didgeridoo.
But as complex as “An American Soldier” is, it would also be an excellent entry point for any potential audience member who’s unsure about opera but curious to trying. The story is gripping, timely, briskly told and constantly challenging the audience to supply their own answers to difficult and vital questions. Who gets to decide what it really means to be an American—and how do you prove yourself worthy of the word? Is military hazing culture a necessary tool to build unit cohesion that civilians like most of us just can’t understand? What are our soldiers fighting for, if our young men and women can be this badly broken before they even get onto the battlefield?
Whatever answers you’re left with, “An American Soldier” will keep echoing in you long after you’ve left. Taking the time to sit with this version of Danny Chen’s story is an excellent way to honor his extraordinary and vital legacy—and it will move you to do what you can to make sure tragedies like his never happen again in our country.
Top photo (L to R) Andrew Stenson as Danny Chen and Kathleen Kim as Josephine Young in the world premiere of Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang’s “An American Soldier.” The second photo (L to R) Andrew Stenson as Danny Chen and Mika Shigematsu as Mother Chen in the world premiere of Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang’s “An American Soldier.” Photos copyright Ken Howard, courtesy of OTSL.