BWW Reviews: Washington National Opera's Emotionally Touching AN AMERICAN SOLDIER
For better or worse, when the public thinks of opera they envision centuries old stories dusted off and performed several times a year by overweight singers. On Friday night, Washington National Opera (WNO) refuted that image with the impressive world premiere production of An American Soldier.
An American Soldier was presented as an hour-long opera, part of WNO's American Opera Initiative. Launched in 2012, the Initiative commissions new works and fosters young talent in an effort to bring contemporary American stories to the stage. Based off the true life story of U.S. Army Private Danny Chen, An American Soldier emotionally and painfully explores the themes of patriotism and identity against the backdrop of America's hazing epidemic. It's hard to get any more contemporary than that and An American Soldier is sure to provoke thought and discussion.
Danny Chen (Andrew Stenson) was born and raised in New York City's Chinatown. Rather than attend college, Chen disregards the wishes of his family and enlists in the military. After being deployed to Afghanistan, Chen becomes the target of ethnic slurs and hazing, and is later found dead. The circumstances of his death continue to be debated, highlighting the darker side of American military culture.
There's a lot of promise with An American Soldier. Chen's emotional struggle to be seen as an "American" soldier can be heard in composer Huang Ruo's haunting score, terrifically conducted by Steven Jarvi. David Paul's straight-forward direction features many heartbreaking moments. The most touching of which is mezzo-soprano Guang Yang's performance as Mother Chen as she mournfully sings a lullaby to Chen.
Where An American Soldier runs into issues is with David Henry Hwang's libretto. The opera takes place at the court martial trial of Chen's superior, Sgt. Aaron Marcum (Trevor Scheunemann). Interwoven throughout the trial are flashbacks scenes of Chen's family life and mistreatment in Afghanistan. The plotting is fine; it's the storytelling that is problematic.
An American Soldier's first two scenes are extremely wordy and emotionally indirect, causing the opera to be slow in getting started. More detail could be infused into these scenes giving us a wider picture about who Chen was and why did he struggle with his identity? It's not until Mother Chen testifies that we become invested in his story. Seeing her anguish over Danny's enlistment and restlessness over his death allows Hwang to raise some pointed questions about racial discrimination and military protocol.
Stenson gives an underwhelming performance, one that left me wanting more from his Chen. Again, part of that criticism comes from my issues with Hwang's libretto and the need for more character development. Another issue is that a tenor is not ideal for the role and is easily eclipsed by the production's deeper voices.
While An American Soldier's cast of seven is small by operatic standards it does feature some wonderful performances by the supporting cast. Special recognition goes to Soloman Howard. His rich bass is perfect for the Judge Advocate role. It's hard not to be instantly drawn to Howard everytime he opens his mouth and I look forward to seeing him in future WNO productions!
Baritone's Scheunemann and Andrew McLaughlin, Bass Michael Ventura and Tenor Jonathan Blalock are all in fine voice and give solid performances as Sgt. Marcum and Chen's company members. We do come to hate Scheunemann's Sgt. Marcum, as we should, for his treatment of Chen. If An American Soldier is expanded, I'd love to see how Hwang and Ruo would further develop Marcum. The role isn't memorable musically and further insight could be provided about who this man is/was and what led to his vile behavior.
Paul Taylor's set design prominently featuring a crisp American flag is a constant reminder throughout the production that racism and hatred still exist in a country which considers itself a "melting pot." Where Taylor's design stumbles are in the Afghanistan scenes which fails to conjure up the war town atmosphere which surrounded Chen's final days.
I love theater that challenges me as an audience member and An American Soldier does just that. Its hour long runtime seemed too short and I can only hope that Hwang and Ruo continue to develop this story about one man's quest to be seen as an "American" soldier and the unanswered questions which surround his story.
Runtime was 65 minutes with no intermission.
Washington National Opera's An American Soldier played through June 14, 2014 at the John F. Kennedy Center's Terrace Theatre.
Photo: Guang Yang as Mother Chen in An American Soldier. Credit: Scott Suchman