I arrived at Kennedy Center Friday night excited. A flag would be planted to An American Solider in a libretto by the accomplished playwright of American stage and screen, David Henry Hwang.
A dramatic, if horrific, documented story would spill the beans about the questioning into the death of a Chinese-American soldier. The theme and setting would both engage us as well as touch a national nerve as we would be confronted with uncomfortable truths about our country’s racism and the damage to lives in our inability to extract ourselves from a controversial war. Perhaps most of all, the commitment and resources of Washington National Opera which have been behind commissioning and developing original voices of American opera for a new generation have been so dedicated and surefooted that this work promised to bring it home “mission accomplished.”
I regret to write that instead this audience member at least found herself curiously unmoved and unconvinced that An American Soldier was ready to lead the deployment in defining new opera or that its flag should be raised to be “seen by everyone.” There’s just not enough there. There. Yet.
New works are a tricky business, especially in an art form that requires so many disciplines to come together. They are deserving of careful handling and multiple viewings by its artists as well as audiences to really define what works and what a work is. I have been impressed by WNO’s forays into new opera, especially last year’s Approaching Ali, a work about the great Mohammed Ali, and have also relished the short opera festivals and commissioned family opera highlighting the formidable talents of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
Baffled by this production, I’m not sure what might be useful to write but quite honestly would love to dialogue and read others’ arguments for this piece.
To my mind there were several misfirings in the work, and it was not for lack of talent. Hwang’s libretto focused on court documents, but much of the docu-drama text was not particularly singable. More importantly, Hwang never plumbed the psychology of the characters, notably Chinese-American Army Pte. Danny Chen and his commanding officer, Sergeant Aaron Marcum, who stood accused of manslaughter, nor developed for either a compelling dramatic arc. The smaller roles of the soldiers who were dragged into participating in Chen’s hazing were not sufficiently differentiated.
There were some beautiful moments of staging. Stage Director David Paul and the performers had done their due diligence researching Arlington’s best to nail that gorgeous rolling walk of military’s elite, running drills of the “grunts,” and the moment of crisply folding the “last flag” and presenting it to the surviving kin. As my mother once said, nobody “does death” better than our military (and heartbreakingly the honor guards have had such practice in the last twenty years.)
Nonetheless, the opera had the feel of being static, and new opera surely must break away from the “stand and deliver” mode of yesteryear.
The music by Huang Ruo included some wonderful textures such as the drone of the didgeridoo and the breathy sound of an Asian flute. I happen to love Chinese and Indonesian music and have lived in countries surround by both, but the brass gongs borrowed from both cultures bashed on relentlessly for too long, even drowning out at times Andrew Stenson, a competent tenor carrying the lead role. The setting of a lot of the vocal parts made me feel shouted at. By the time we arrived at the more lyrical passages, and some beautiful singing by John Blalock as a young sympathetic soldier to Danny and Guang Yang who sang the role of Henry’s grieving mother it was too little too late.
Finally, I want to touch on the central theme as stated of An American Soldier, knowing I now wade into turbulent and dangerous waters. Racism is an ugly aspect of our society and not one easily talked about.
At one moment, the opera stops in its tracks as Solomon Howard, a singer who has proven himself a formidable force in WNO’s last few seasons, steps out of character in his desperately underused role as judge but whose presence lends the opera moments of great dignity and gravitas. He moves down stage to announce that President Obama signed an anti-hazing bill into law last year to make intolerant the kind of hazing that cost Chen his life, as if that somehow put a cap onto the story.
But the opera has not made the case to this viewer that this was ultimately about racism. Certainly we were shown that Sergeant Marcum proved prejudiced in the extreme. But I saw the sergeant rather as a disturbed sadist and the more I watched, the more my interest swung to this character. (I want to know how the man not only received a not-guilty judgment but wonder where is he out there now and what collateral damage might he still inflict.) I’m not sure the creators’ intentions were that this character and the compelling singer baritone Trevor Scheunemann would elicit my strongest interest of the evening. There is a scene, for instance, where the sergeant discovers a broken water pipe and he explodes. Arguably the most dramatic scenes in the opera, it is one where you can feel the man’s fire in his belly that will not be quenched until he has found an outlet for his anger close at hand.
This opera said more about how, in military culture, a man with such unrestrained anger management issues would not be stopped but that underlings would cower and go along with him. The opera did not make the case of the military’s culture of racism as much as it touched on singular mental deviancy. The opera has compelled me to think and read more about this.
Ours is an important time to reflect on the implications of war and its collateral damage in our society, and theatre of many genres and voices should be engaged with stories of the two decades of the recent war that has defined us. Across town right now at Arena Stage is a dance-theatre work, Healing Wars, by director-choreographer Liz Lerman. Arena’s artistic director Molly Smith was sitting in the audience at the Kennedy Center for the Washington National Opera’s opening of An American Soldier. What a wonderful opportunity for collegial dialogue and artistic resonances.
This time, this event, and this work deserve more engagement. I submit this on trial to begin the dialogue.
An American Soldier . Music by Huang Ruo . Libretto by David Henry Hwang . Conducted by Steven Jarvi . Stage Direction by David Paul . Featuring: Andrew Stenson, Guang Yang, Trevor Scheunemann, Solomon Howard, Andrew McLaughlin, Michael Ventura, and Jonathan Blalock . Set Design: Paul Taylor . Costume Design: Lynly A. Saunders . Lighting Design: A.J. Guban . Produced by Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
An American Soldier was performed June 13 and 14 at the Kennedy Center.