These days, the received wisdom about creating an opera is that you hammer the libretto into shape and then add music. That may not be the “right” way to approach the issue for every creative team, but there is no question that this method has cut down considerably on the number of shapeless, non-viable dramatic lumps that appear on the opera stage under the banner of new works.
Yet that approach can also result in an opera in which text and music appear to exist in two different realms, like the hour-long piece “An American Soldier,” by Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang, which had its world premiere Friday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, as the latest installment of the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative.
On one level, “An American Soldier” — a documentary about a tragic real-life case — is notable, particularly in the opera world, for its quick turnaround; the events it portrays took place in 2011. The title figure is Danny Chen, an Army private who served in Afghanistan and was found dead of a gunshot wound, an alleged suicide, after months of emotional and physical abuse from his superiors and fellow soldiers, who reportedly called him various ethnic slurs and dragged him over gravel in full army gear.
Hwang, the librettist — a well-known playwright and not infrequent operatic collaborator — takes us briskly through the story in flashback, staying faithful to details that were laid out in a New York Magazine article from 2012: A kid from Chinatown wants to prove his Americanness by enlisting in the Army against his loving mother’s will, only to find himself subject to random undeserved and grim punishments once he gets to Afghanistan.
On another level, “An American Soldier” seeks to make a musical statement that goes beyond merely functional dramatic text-setting. Ruo interleaves his score with a range of arresting sounds, woven into the fabric of the music — the sound of half-tuneless air blowing on the flute; an otherwordly, theremin-like effect from the brass; all emanating from a 13-piece chamber orchestra. The quasi-Asian effects offer not only textural richness but also an evocative illustration of the challenges Chen faced trying to blend his Chinese and American identities.
The distinctive qualities, however, lie more in the orchestra than in the vocal writing. There was only limited scope for the singers, strong though they were, to offer characterization, because most of the piece was offered at a uniform loudness — whether because of the conducting of Steven Jarvi or because of a libretto that, like so many other contemporary operas, makes the mistake of having its characters consistently sing from a place of heightened emotional intensity. Only the final measures, a poignant lullaby from Chen’s mother, relieved the dynamic monotony by lapsing into quietness.
With this new program, WNO’s mission has been to offer young composers a chance to try their hand at dramatic writing, with three 20-minute works in the fall and an hour-long piece in the spring representing stations on the way to a full-length piece.
That mission appeared a little clouded by the choice to commission Ruo, whose full-length opera “Dr. Sun Yat-Sen” is having its North American premiere next month at the Santa Fe Opera.
The idea that these works would offer more activity for the Domingo-Cafritz young artists was also largely abandoned with this cast, which included only one member of the program: Soloman Howard, who is shaping up to be one of WNO’s success stories; his rich bass has been steadily gaining in impact and bloom over the past couple of years, and he was suitably imposing here as the military judge. The cast also included one alumnus of the program: Trevor Scheunemann, who sounded a little dry as Sgt. Marcum, a character who represented a composite of Chen’s real-life tormentors for the sake of dramatic efficacy.
The others were largely new to WNO’s stage, starting with Andrew Stenson, an impressive tenor who sustained a lot of big singing in the title role. As his mother, the mezzo Guang Yang offered an instrument that was sizable, if a little patchy in places. Andrew McLaughlin, Michael Ventura and Jonathan Blalock played other minor characters, mainly soldiers and officers, taking several roles each without having much chance to differentiate one from the other, although they tried nobly with accents and gaits.
The piece affirmed its documentary character by including, at the end, the information that as a result of Chen’s death, President Obama signed a bill last year to take steps against military hazing. That addition confirmed the opera’s presence in a kind of no-man’s-land: a worthwhile story that has competent music, but which is told in fulfillment of so many external requirements that it fails to have a distinctive spark of its own.
It did, however, execute its mission honorably, which is at least a fitting tribute to its subject.