Washington National Opera: American Opera Initiative: ‘An American Soldier’

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Washington National Opera continues their new project the American Opera Initiative with An American Soldier, with music by Huang Ruo and libretto by David Henry Hwang. It is a stunning conclusion to their 2014 season.

Opera is especially suited to a particular kind of story, the dramatic, the bold, the tragic and Ruo and Hwang have imbued all of these into the story of Lt. Danny Chen, the true story of an American from New York’s Chinatown who joined the army only to serve under a cruel Sergeant in Afghanistan.  This opera covers the trial following his death in an ingenious series of flashbacks, narrative from his squad mates, and pleas from his mother.

Andrew Stenson (Danny Chen). Photo Scott Suchman.
Andrew Stenson (Danny Chen). Photo Scott Suchman.

The music is contemporary and haunting under the sure baton of conductor Steven Jarvi.  A bass drum echoes throughout the piece while chimes shrill as we draw closer and closer to the fateful evening. Chinese music is a clear influence in the harmonies and the heavy percussion, all making for a heavy accompaniment to Hwang’s libretto sung by this powerful cast.

Andrew Stenson (Danny Chen) has a beautiful, rich tenor and many challenging arias to show it off in this piece, including “Sgt. Marcum here on trial,” “I want to be in the middle of the action,” and “I was born here, raised here.”

Guang Yang (Mother Chen) is the only female voice in the cast and more than holds her own with boys. “Mother Chen’s Lullaby” is a beautiful aria and “I had a dream AN AMERICAN DREAM” just about broke my heart.

Trevor Scheunemann (Sgt. Aaron Marcum) is a powerful force on stage,and his fellow soldiers who took multiple roles throughout the piece, Andrew McLaughlin, Michael Ventura, and Jonathan Blalock, can all outsing the intimate Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center.

Soloman Howard (Judge) is a member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program though I would never have guessed he has yet to finish training in a powerful turn in this cast.

Andrew Stenson (Danny Chen) and Soloman Howard (The Judge). Photo by Scott Suchman.
Andrew Stenson (Danny Chen) and Soloman Howard (The Judge). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Director David Paul was more a choreographer, shifting actors from scene to scene effortlessly and building the final moments to an impeccable dénouement. The action goes from Chen’s childhood home to Afghanistan to Fort Bragg and back and the set by Paul Taylor is ingenious for conjuring up each place with a few pieces – a wall of graffiti, a Yankees’ pennant, a frying pan, or a flag. The costumes by Lynly A. Saunders had to do similar double duty; they were also very authentic. The lights did much of the heavy lifting especially in the warzones by A.J. Guban.

I hope this does have the chance to develop into a full-length piece. If I had one critique, it is that there was little time to build. From the get-go everyone was singing all-out to be able tell this story fully. With a longer version, hopefully there would be a chance for a few quieter, happier moments.

An American Soldier is a deep and dramatic opera from two American treasures. The American Opera Initiative was designed to develop American librettists and composers creating American stories and this is a worthy addition to the cannon – an absolutely riveting evening.

Duration: One  hour, with no intermission.

An American Soldier plays for one more performance, today June 14, 2014 at 2 PM at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater -2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 416-8528, or purchase them online.