A Soldier’s Racially Charged Suicide Becomes a Powerful Opera

ST. LOUIS — “They can’t hear me,” the ghost of Pvt. Danny Chen sings desperately during the first scene of the fresh opera “An American Soldier.” “No one’s listening.” In real life, Private Chen, after months of vicious hazing as well as racist taunts, killed himself in 2011 at an army outpost in Afghanistan. He was 19.

The opera opens inside the military court where a sergeant is actually being tried for negligent homicide inside the death. The dead man’s ghost appears, trying to speak to those assembled there — including Private Chen’s suffering mother, who has come seeking justice — who can’t see or hear him. nevertheless thanks to the composer Huang Ruo as well as the playwright David Henry Hwang, the creators of This kind of powerful work, we’re listening to him today.

Basing an opera on a recent historical event, especially a story fraught with racism, is actually risky. nevertheless “An American Soldier,” having its premiere in an expanded two-act product here at Opera Theater of St. Louis as well as seen on Saturday, is actually convincing, driven by Mr. Hwang’s rueful libretto as well as Mr. Huang’s arresting music. Turning what was a 60-minute chamber opera — seen in Washington, D.C., in 2014 — into a richly orchestrated two-hour work, the creators explore the complexities of Private Chen’s life as well as death, the tragic tale of a young Chinese-American man who just wanted to prove he was, as he sings, a “real American, an American soldier.”

The libretto situates the story at the trial nevertheless explains how we got there through a series of flashbacks rendered vividly in Matthew Ozawa’s strikingly spare production, with sets of which slide on as well as off a shadowy stage. We see the teenage Danny (sung with raw emotion as well as poignant boyishness by the remarkable tenor Andrew Stenson) at home in fresh York’s Chinatown, producing dinner with his beloved mother (the affecting mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu, in a remarkable performance), who is actually distressed to find out her son has enlisted. There are increasingly awful incidents at boot camp as well as in Afghanistan, where he endures vulgar hazing by his fellow soldiers as well as sadistic humiliations by the racist sergeant (the bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, who is actually chilling).

Elements of modernist atonality, Asian-inflected styles, jazz as well as eerie atmospheric noise course through the taut score. Yet you sense Mr. Huang in control of every detail. Whole stretches crackle with sputtering rhythms as well as skittish riffs. Strange, fractured fanfares, like would certainly-be military marches, keep recurring. nevertheless during reflective passages, searching vocal lines are backed by tremulous harmonies as well as delicate instrumental flecks. Both the subtle colorings as well as pummeling intensity came through inside the compelling performance the conductor Michael Christie drew by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Huang acutely charts emotional undercurrents in his music. During the first flashback, set on a fire escape, Danny chats with his cheerful, college-bound friend Josephine (the soprano Kathleen Kim). Her music is actually chirpy as well as kinetic, nevertheless weird chords as well as nervous bits rustling inside the orchestra suggest of which Josephine fears of which his plan to enlist is actually dangerous. Similarly, the opera depicts a boot camp ritual called “Racial Thursdays,” when the soldiers were all nevertheless encouraged to hurl racist taunts at each another, the idea being of which such venting would certainly let off steam as well as boost morale. nevertheless inside the opera, as these soldiers mask their barbs with comradely banter, Mr. Huang’s roiling music reveals the deep hatreds at play.

One late scene struck me as a miscalculation. At the trial, after the sergeant is actually cleared of the most serious charges, the judge (the earthy bass Nathan Stark) as well as a chorus of male as well as female soldiers sing “E pluribus unum; by the many, one.” With music of which hints of Copland, Mr. Huang tries to rescue the trope of the affirming American anthem by triteness. nevertheless especially given the political climate of today, with anti-immigrant hostility being stoked by a divisive administration in Washington, of which was hard to know what to make of This kind of attempt at redemption. I wanted more bitterness as well as irony.

After a harrowing scene showing Private Chen’s final humiliation (he is actually forced by the sergeant to crawl over sharp rocks while soldiers hurl stones at him) as well as the bleak depiction of his death — the shooting, which his family never accepted was a suicide, takes place offstage — “An American Soldier” ends magnificently that has a sorrowful scene for his mother. She tells us of her American dream: simply to work, be happy as well as raise a family. The day her son was born, she thought: “This kind of is actually enough.” Then she sings an elegiac lullaby to her dead son, though she can’t help slipping into bursts of anger.

On Friday, Opera Theater presented a fresh production of Mark Blitzstein’s “Regina.” of which’s based on Lillian Hellman’s play “The Little Foxes,” best known by the 1941 film starring Bette Davis as Regina Giddins, a Southern woman with aristocratic airs who struggles for wealth as well as independence in a deeply patriarchal culture. “Regina” had its premiere in a Broadway theater in 1949, nevertheless closed quickly; critics as well as audiences were baffled by Blitzstein’s hybrid of opera as well as musical theater.

nevertheless “Regina” may be a piece whose time has come, especially as presented here in James Robinson’s production, suggestive of the Southern locale as well as early-20th-century period, as well as performed by an exceptional cast led by the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham inside the title role. Though the score evokes spirituals, jazz, folk songs, ragtime as well as Dixieland, the elements of musical theater came through most strongly in This kind of performance, led with brio by Stephen Lord. The score keeps breaking into set-piece arias of which are basically Broadway songs. Leonard Bernstein admired Bliztstein tremendously, as well as the influence of “Regina” upon Bernstein’s stage works is actually unmistakable.

The plot turns on Regina’s attempt to secure $75,000 producing sure of which she can join her two wealthy brothers in a plan to build a cotton mill on their plantation. She schemes to get the money by her ailing husband — as well as, as we discover, stops at nothing to do so.

The baritone Ron Raines, who has worked extensively in musical theater, as well as the veteran Wagnerian bass-baritone James Morris were excellent as the two brothers, Oscar as well as Benjamin. The soprano Susanna Phillips brought touching vulnerability to the role of Birdie, Oscar’s flighty wife, who frets as well as drinks too much. The youthful bloom of the soprano Monica Dewey’s voice was perfect for Alexandra, Regina’s daughter, who comes to understand her mother’s ruthlessness.

as well as Ms. Graham, who has sung a lot of bubbly roles in her day, seized on Regina to show her flair for fiercely dramatic singing. At one point, Regina says of which when she was young, she “loathed as well as despised” anyone who “obeyed so easy.” This kind of includes women, of which’s clear, who simply heed their parents as well as husbands. Ms. Graham delivered the phrases with sneering contempt as well as steely tone. You believed This kind of proto-feminist Regina.

An American Soldier
Through June 24 at Opera Theater of St. Louis; 314-961-0644, opera-stl.org.