An American Soldier Perelman Performing Arts Center

Huang Ruo and David Henry Wang Join Forces Again

By: - May 30, 2024

An American Soldier, an opera by Huang Ruo and David Henry Wang, has been developing for a decade. The 2024 version is co-commissioned by PAC NYC and Boston Lyric Opera. 

Audiences at the new Perelman Performing Arts Center in lower Manhattan, are the beneficiaries of deep thought and a moving musical response to a seemingly uncomplicated subject: the wish of a young man, born in the USA of Asian immigrants, to be considered ‘American.’ Brian Vu sings the lead.

Madama Butterfly has been revived across the US this spring season and this new opera exists in its long shadow. Giacomo Puccini was an Italian. He used the play of New Yorker David Belasco to create the libretto. What a cad its thoroughly American leading man is. Lieutenant Pinkerton arrives in Japan, accompanied by themes from the Star Spangled Banner.

For An American Soldier, the creators chose to give us a patriotic song that repeats the phrase, E Pluribus Unum.  (From many, one.)  Its tones are ethnically neutral. This is not the America of Franics Scott Key who adopted his verse to an old English drinking song in 1815.

This is a story told from an Asian immigrant's point of view.  Much of the music has an Asian feel. We come to feel not only for a young Asian boy, but for his immigrant parents who don’t speak English. Danny Chen’s English is perfect. Why shouldn't he be accepted wherever he goes?  Fort Benning, Afghanistan. 

The redneck Army men’s songs are rough and ready and full of curse words which are thought to signify American manhood. The women’s music is more lyrical. Hannah Cho as Josephine, who is referred to here as Danny’s friend although in the St. Louis production she was a girlfriend, sings a particularly lovely duet with Danny as they look at the same moon from Chinatown NY (just blocks from this production) and Afghanistan. Nina Yoshida Nelsen (often Suzuki, Madama Butterfly’s maid and soon-to-be artistic director of the Boston Lyric Opera)  sang the poignant role of Danny's mother. Her anger at his insistence about going into the military softens as the story progresses and her son comes under threat from hazing and brutal beating by his superior officers. In the end, she imagines her now dead son in her arms as a little boy, rocking him to sleep.

David Henry Wang is the premier librettist working in new opera today. The opera unfolds with unusual twists in time and often simultaneity of places thousands of miles apart. Yet you always know where you are–in America looking at the ways in which slavery has helped us learn how to exclude and justify. This opera is not only beautiful and loving. It reminds us when people come to America legitimately they deserve to be called American and treated like Americans, in our melting pot of a country. 

Carolyn Kuan conducting the American Composers Orchestra brought out all the details of Huang Ruo’s vision and carefully etched them into the action directed by Chay Yew.

The new Perelman Performing Arts Center is a welcome new venue for chamber opera. Peter Gelb mounts chamber opera after chamber opera on the Metropolitan Opera stage, fit only for grand opera.  He is the opposite of a Cinderella sister, blowing up productions so they fit the Met and don’t fit the opera they are serving.  Like An American Soldier, much of the new opera is chamber in size.  

The Perelman venue is a work in progress. It has moveable pieces that can be explored to best serve a production.  In this case, the fact that the venue does not have a pit works against the important orchestral accompaniment, buried at the back of the stage behind a curtain.  The Meyer Sound mic system, where microphones are embedded in the walls of the theater, can be fine-tuned for each production.  They were not used to maximum effect in An American Soldier.  

Look for more operas produced here as the venue settles in.