The Native Son
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The Native Son

Composer Huang Ruo has expanded his opera An American Soldier, the story of Private Danny Chen, for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
By Andrea Louie
Photographs by Ball & Albanese 

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Photographs by Ball & Albanese
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Photographed at Hotel 50 Bowery NYC by Ball & Albanese
Watch courtesy of Rolex

Grooming by Affan Graber Malik

COMPOSER HUANG RUO speaks four dialects of Chinese, but Taishanese isn’t one of them. That didn’t matter when Huang Ruo met the mother of nineteen-year-old Danny Chen, the Army private found dead in 2011 of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot to his head in a guard tower in Afghanistan. Su Zhen Chen’s grief transcended language. Inscribed on her son’s arm was “Tell my parents I’m sorry.”

“I could hear how much she misses her son, how much she loves him,” Huang Ruo says of that first encounter. “She gave me the motivation to tell this story. I don’t need to speak the same language as Danny’s mother to understand her.” This intimate tale of love between a mother and son became the emotional center of an opera that also confronts some of today’s most daunting problems—hazing in the military and racism in contemporary American society.

On June 3, the expanded, full-length opera An American Soldier, based on Danny Chen’s life—by Huang Ruo, with a libretto by Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang—will have its premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis as part of the company’s “New Works, Bold Voices” series. (The first, sixty-minute version of the piece was commissioned and performed by Washington National Opera.) Danny Chen’s mother is pleased to see the opera have another turn on the stage. “We didn’t want to do the opera if the parents didn’t want it,” Hwang says. “But Huang had a conversation with the parents, and that became the through line of the entire opera.” Huang Ruo’s wife, Shelley Monroe Huang, was pregnant with their first child when he first met Danny Chen’s mother; parenthood deeply informed his composition. A lullaby sung by the character Mother Chen anchors the opera:

Sleep now, little one,
Do not fear,
Do not cry,
Like the stars above,
I’ll watch over you. 

“I am grateful that An American Soldier has been expanded,” Su Zhen Chen says through an interpreter. “I don’t want anyone to forget my son.”

HUANG RUO WAS BORN IN 1976—the year the Chinese Cultural Revolution ended—in Hainan, a small province of more than 200 islands in the South China Sea. His earliest musical memory is of attending the local Hainanese opera, where audience members brought their own benches to the outdoor theater. “That actually helped me understand opera,” he says. His father, Huang Ying-sen, also a composer, began teaching him piano and composition at the age of six. Huang Ruo entered the Shanghai Conservatory of Music at age twelve and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music from Oberlin and master’s and doctoral degrees in composition from Juilliard. As Lindsley Cameron Miyoshi previously wrote for Opera News, Huang Ruo’s eclectic influences encompass “classical, avant-garde, world music (from ancient to present), rock and jazz, noise, etc.… The vocal writing, marked by unusual Chinese-influenced ornamentation, is exceptionally singable for contemporary work…. Now New York-based, he is not so much Chinese as thoroughly globalized.” Huang Ruo’s compositions have been commissioned and performed by orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. He is currently on the composition faculty at the Mannes College of Music and is the artistic director and conductor of the performance ensemble FIRE (Future In REverse).

His first compositions were for friends—“mostly chamber music,” Huang Ruo says. “Opera seemed so old, both Western and Chinese—why do it? But I also felt I wasn’t ready. It integrates so many elements.” As a Juilliard student, he would go to the Metropolitan Opera, where he turned off the titles, closed his eyes and listened. “This trained me to use music as the character builders,” he says. His first opera, Dr. Sun Yat-sen—about the first president of the People’s Republic of China and his second wife, Soong Ching-Ling—had its premiere in Hong Kong in 2013 and a second run in 2014 at Sante Fe Opera. Huang Ruo composes at the piano, and he also sings. “I need to feel the words and the breathing,” he says. “If I can experience that, then I know the performers can do it.”

Huang Ruo was commissioned to do a piece for Washington National Opera’s 2014 American Opera Initiative. He and David Henry Hwang had wanted to collaborate on an opera for years, ever since the two worked together at the Signature Theatre on the off-Broadway revival of Hwang’s Dance and the Railroad, for which Huang Ruo wrote music. It was Hwang who proposed doing an opera based on a true story of a Chinese–American boy from New York with big dreams. 

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Tenor Andrew Stenson as Private Danny Chen at WNO
© Scott Suchman/WNO

THE DEATH OF DANNY CHEN stunned the immigrant community in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where he was born and raised. His mother was a seamstress, and his father, Yan Tao Chen, worked ten-hour days in Chinese restaurants. Both were from Guangdong Province in Southern China. Chen had been, by all accounts, a good son; he was especially close to his mother. He got a full scholarship to Baruch College. But at eighteen, without telling his parents, he enlisted in the Army.

Chen sought adventure and independence and aspired to serve in the New York Police Department, which he hoped would provide a stable job, so he could take care of his parents. He underwent basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia, and was based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. His unit was deployed to Kandahar Province in Afghanistan in August 2011. Military investigators subsequently documented that, throughout his service, Chen was the target of unrelenting racial slurs and brutal physical attacks by his fellow servicemen. On the day he died, other soldiers forced him to crawl 330 feet to the guard tower, then pelted him with rocks before he started his shift at 8 a.m. Three hours later, a gunshot was heard.

Eight men from Chen’s unit, all white, were charged in connection with his death, including for assault, involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. While the most serious charges were dropped, four of the men were court martialed on the remaining charges.

Elizabeth OuYang, former president of OCA-NY, an Asian–American advocacy group, led efforts to get justice for Chen. It was she who appealed to David Henry Hwang, hoping he might write a play about what had happened in Afghanistan. “Hazing in the military is not a topic that people gravitate to,” OuYang says. “Education was always happening simultaneously with advocacy, and I was looking for ways to make that reach as far as possible. The arts are so formative in planting seeds into topics in unthreatening ways.”

But Hwang—known for Broadway plays such as M. Butterfly and Chinglish—was experimenting with more comedic works and meta themes. He didn’t feel that Danny Chen’s story was right for a play. When Francesca Zambello, artistic director of Washington National Opera, called Huang Ruo to commission an opera, “It was like all rivers flowing to the ocean,” Huang Ruo says. All WNO’s American Opera Initiative commissions call for an American story. He and Hwang believed that opera was the most direct and effective way to tell Chen’s story; they knew that music and theater can touch people. But racism was at the center of this story; did WNO want to take this on? “Without hesitation, they moved forward,” Huang Ruo says.

The result was the sixty-minute version, a “docu-opera” that addressed issues of patriotism, cultural identity, belonging and otherness. Hwang used transcripts from the court-martial hearings in his libretto. “Music is the driving force in the storytelling,” Huang Ruo says. “Music is not just an art form but should help move society forward.”

Huang Ruo also understood the risks of telling a story that was still so raw to Chen’s family, friends and advocates. “It’s always the challenge of doing something that is new—it’s the question ‘Is the audience ready?’ We had to trust our instincts,” Huang Ruo says.

The hour-length performance was a montage, opening with scenes from the court-martial hearings, with Chen appearing as a ghost. OuYang brought Chen’s parents and promoted the event to the New York Chinatown community, many of whose members traveled to the premiere at the Kennedy Center. When they heard the lullaby, “We were all in tears,” she says. “There’s a notion that we [Asian–Americans] are the perpetual foreigner. Danny was treated like a second-class citizen. It was an important confirmation that the story reached our nation’s capital.” When Chen’s parents were in the audience, OuYang, who had previewed the show, discreetly escorted them from the theater before the final scene.

The role of the arts in influencing contemporary society is embraced by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. “Opera is late to the table” in creating works that are timely, says Timothy O’Leary, OTSL’s general director, who will become the general director of WNO on July 1. “We need to stay in touch. The arts invite a different part of the conversation, and we are adding value to civic life.” 

James Robinson, artistic director of OTSL, was eager to expand the original production. “The piece has really grown and matured,” he says. “What does it take to be a real American? It’s a potent question. An intimate story can have monumental impact.”

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Mezzo Guang Yang as Mother Chen in An American Soldier at WNO, 2014
© Scott Suchman/WNO

NOW, THE OPERA IS two hours long, plus an intermission. The original score was written for a thirteen-member orchestra; it now uses thirty-five musicians. “It’s not just about getting louder but having more colors,” Huang Ruo says. There are no traditional Asian instruments, but there are three didgeridoos, because he wanted their surreal sounds in the scene in which Chen appears as a ghost.

Most important, the expansion allowed the composer to illuminate Chen more fully as a character. “I wanted to use the time to dig deeper,” he says. “What changes Danny from a happy young man? It’s less comical—you can feel the difference.” Several scenes have been added, as well as a new character, a friend named Josephine. One scene features an aria sung by Danny that gives insight into his final hours as he addresses his mother, “a ma”:

I love my country
Put my life on the line
But does my country love me?
Or am I the enemy?
A ma, forgive me.… 

The role of Chen will be performed by tenor Andrew Stenson, who was born in Korea and raised in Minnesota. Mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu will perform the role of Mother Chen, and Matthew Ozawa will codirect the production. Having Asian–Americans anchoring the production was deeply important to Huang Ruo and Hwang, who are both Chinese–American. “We need to have Asian–Americans tell these stories,” Huang Ruo says. “And this is a story that deals with race.” The issue of racism has been heightened in the current political climate, he says. “It’s even more urgent than when we were beginning our opera.” 

Now that Huang Ruo is father to a son, Nyquist Zhen-Yuan Huang, four, and a daughter, Adelisa Zhen-Xiao Huang, one, this story has even greater resonance for him. “Every day I watch my children, and I feel so blessed,” he says. To see them is to understand the grief—and courage—of Chen’s mother. “It’s my dream to bring this opera to New York,” he says. “(Danny) is our son. We now have a street named after him. It’s a New York story.” spacer 

Andrea Louie, a writer based in New York, was formerly the executive director of the Asian American Arts Alliance. 

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