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June 05, 2014

New Opera Immortalizes Tragedy of Chinese-American Soldier

by Zlatica Hoke

In October of 2011, a Chinese-American soldier serving in Afghanistan was found shot dead in an apparent suicide after weeks of abuse by his fellow servicemen.  An investigation showed that 19-year-old Danny Chen had been the subject of racial slurs and abusive treatment, including excessive guard duty and torturous exercises, accompanied by beating and taunting by other soldiers. The tragedy of the young man is the subject of a new opera titled An American Soldier, which premiers in Washington, D.C. on June 13.

Cast members rehearse a scene in which fellow soldiers force Danny Chen to drink excessive amounts of water before an arduous exercise.

New York-based tenor Andrew Stenson portrays the tormented soldier.  He says he sees Chen as an ordinary inexperienced young man.  

"I am trying to reserve any judgments and just - the fact of the matter is  - it's a young kid in a terrible, uncomfortable situation," he said.

Stenson says he is drawing from the memories of his own youth when he was taunted about his Asian appearance.  He says he continues to face racial profiling even in large, ethnically diverse cities like New York.

"When I was leaving my apartment to come here, one of the ladies in my apartment [building] thought I was a delivery boy and asked if I had anything for her," Stenson said.

The Washington National Opera commissioned Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo to create an hour-long work based on a contemporary American story.  He decided to use Chen's tragedy to explore challenges faced by many immigrants and their families in the United States.

"From the perspective of Danny - when he grew up in Chinatown in New York - what are the challenges he faces and why he decided to join the Army," said Ruo.
 
Chen's parents speak very little English.  After high school, the teenager was offered a scholarship for college, but he decided to join the Army instead.

"He wanted to be 100 percent American, and this is something not every American child, or teenage boy, or even girl would experience," said Ruo.

The libretto is based on court-martial testimonies of Chen's fellow soldiers.  The central setting is a military courtroom at Fort Bragg, Texas.  As the soldiers testify, there are flashbacks of the events that led to Chen's death in Kandahar, Afghanistan.  
Opera director David Paul says the courtroom set is gradually dismantled until it hits a wall of graffiti typically found in war zones.

"One of the things we want to show in the piece is how American justice fails this man and essentially falls apart and we are trying to get at the bottom of why, but as the piece progresses, it - American justice - fails us and so one of the things we are showing is that this courtroom as foundation of the story essentially disintegrates," he said.

Creators of An American Soldier say they hope the opera will contribute to a closer scrutiny of a dark undercurrent in the U.S. military culture, and society in general.