How Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Joined Forces With Huang Ruo & David Henry Hwang To World Premiere New Version of ‘An American Soldier’

By David Salazar

Few companies are pushing the envelope when it comes to developing new American opera than Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

The company is now entering its fifth season of the New Works, Bold Voices series, which fosters new American operas on American themes.

For the upcoming 2018 festival, the company will be producing the world premiere of Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang’s “An American Soldier.”

The opera follows the story of Private Danny Chen, a first-generation Chinese-American who enlists in the army in 2011 but soon finds himself at the center of deadly military hazing once he arrives in Afghanistan. The opera is based on a true story and brings up major themes of abuse and division in a time where the country is battling this very issue.

The opera actually had its world premiere in Washington in a far shorter version, but OTSL asked Ruo and Hwang to expand it to include more material.

“This is the rare opera that needed to be longer,” stated OTSL general director Timothy O’Leary during a press luncheon in New York that included the composer and librettist as well as OTSL’s Artistic Director James Robinson.

The opera, which was originally just 60 minutes in length was expanded to close to two hours worth of music.

Hwang was originally approached with the story years back before the 2014 premiere in Washington. He was originally asked to create a play on the story.

“It didn’t feel like the right form for the story,” he noted. “I didn’t embrace that.”

Around the same time, Ruo was commissioned to write a 60-minute opera for Washington.

“Opera is great for handling big epic subjects and big emotions,” said Hwang. So he reached out and talked to the composer.

Ruo was immediately thrilled about it. He proposed the idea to Francesca Zambello and once he had approval, they got to work.

The 60-minute version worked well, but Ruo felt that the opera could be better. “I wanted to flesh out the story more and go more in depth with the characters,” Ruo noted.

And in came the OTSL and, specifically, James Robinson.

Robinson had worked with Ruo before and wanted to commission a work with him. They discussed a number of themes, but could not find anything that “stuck.”

So Robinson asked Ruo to show him more about “An American Soldier.” Ruo handed him the archival recordings and Robinson was mesmerized.

“This is an amazing story. It’s almost too much in it for under an hour,” Robinson noted. “I told them we would be willing to expand this because I think you guys could elevate the story more. Fortunately, they were very keen to do that.

Hwang and Ruo had a ton of material to work with in making the opera longer. Hwang revealed that there were a lot of scenes that had to be cut for the hour-long version that the two revisited for this version. There is also the addition of the character of Josephine, who is a contrast with Danny. Her life is dictated by her parents in contrast with Danny, who charts his own path on his own terms. There are also moments of lightness, which are mostly non-existent in the original 60-minute version.

“It allows us to go more deeply into the characters,” Hwang noted. That included furthering the development of the character of Danny and “contextualizing his story within a larger understanding of American pluralism and culturalism.”

“It was more expansion than extension,” added Ruo. The opportunity to return to his score didn’t mean that he just left material intact, but sought ways to develop it further and strengthen it.

The new version of the opera will have its world premiere on June 3, 2018, with a cast that includes Andrew Stenson as Danny, Wayne Tigges as Sergeant Aaron Marcum, Mika Shigematsu as Mother Chen, and Kathleen Kim as Josephine Young.