Brian Vu, dressed as a soldier as Danny Chen in "An American Soldier."

Huang Ruo is using opera to teach Asian American history

The Chinese American composer on his latest work, which tells the story of Chinese American soldier Danny Chen, and the strides made in AA+PI and BIPOC operatic voices

Brian Vu as Danny Chen in "An American Soldier."

Courtesy of Perelman Performing Arts Center

Words by Caroline Cao

As a child, Hainan-born composer Huang Ruo used performance as playtime—with no toys of his own, he remembers dramatizing make-believe sad stories instead. Trained by his composer father at age 6 and then the Shanghai Conservatory of Music at age 12, his fondness for drama rippled into his operas of the heartbreaks within Asian and Asian American history.

Known to bundle Western and Eastern soundscapes, the composer has woven an operatic tapestry of true stories: A 2014 Houston Grand Opera premiere, Bound illustrates the Texas court system jailing a Vietnamese American teen, Diane Tran, for truancy—she had to miss school to watch her siblings; the 2024 Brooklyn-run Angel Island gives music to the prison wall poems of Chinese American immigrants detained at Angel Island Immigration Station; and the 2022 Santa Fe Opera M. Butterfly, a collaboration with playwright David Henry Hwang to convert the latter’s Tony-winning play into opera, is inspired by a Beijing opera singer's subterfuge seduction of a French diplomat.

Among his and Hwang’s formative collaborations is An American Soldier, an opera about 19-year-old U.S. Army Private Danny Chen found dead at his Afghanistan base in 2011, following incidents in which his fellow soldiers forced him through physical and racist harassment. This sounded an alarm on the hazing and racism embedded in military culture (in which similar cases claimed the lives of Harry Lew and Brushaun Anderson).

The week before its New York premiere on May 12 at the Manhattan-based Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC), I spoke with the New York-based Ruo over Zoom. “I want to point out that even up to today that Danny’s family does not accept the conclusion of suicide,” Ruo said (also in gentle correction at how I casually described the case). “That is something we insisted on in our opera. He did not commit suicide. He was found dead with a gunshot wound in the watchtower. I want to make sure we respect the family's request. And the investigation was inconclusive.”

The project was born when the OCA-NY Asian Pacific American Advocates organization recruited Hwang to cover the subject in theater, and it had its 2014 Washington National Opera premiere as a 60-minute docudrama version based on court-martial transcripts. In 2018, it expanded into a two-act 35-member orchestra staging at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, with the script strengthening the human focus around Chen’s mother and his high school friend—also adding the finale “E Pluribus Unum.” Ruo and I chatted about the evolution of An American Soldier into its 2024 premiere and the future of AA+PI and BIPOC composers in opera.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Caroline Cao: How does this PAC NYC production differ from the previous version? Tell me about the approach by director Chay Yew (Cambodian Rock Band).
Huang Ruo: What I love about his style is he's very clean, very exact. The [smaller scaling of this] production is very suitable because we are creating a production that is focused on the 10 singers, playing multiple roles to tell a dramatic story.

Director Chay Yew kneels in a room with two men around him, rehearsing for "An American Soldier."

Chay Yew directing a rehearsal of "An American Soldier."

HanJie Chow

CC: I want to talk about the technique you call “dimensionalism,” your concept where music must align with the context of the story for an immersive effect, often weaving together Eastern and Western instrumentations and composition styles for operas that deal with Eastern-Western subjects. How would you describe dimensionalism in this opera?
HR: Dimensionalism is a way to create and perceive music. Music is not just two-dimensional; it is four-dimensional. So in our production, it is not just left to right, front to back, that is a total theater. So it’s dimensionalism in the sense this is enhanced because of the staging, because of the way the opera unfolds. It also is a multicultural way of writing. We not only have the American culture, we also have the Chinese American cultural way of writing, and we have different generations. Mother Chen (mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen) is a first-generation Chinese American who came to this country to pursue her American Dream. Danny Chen (tenor Brian Vu) was second-generation, born and raised in America, and he had his own American Dream. [Dimensionalism here] is how to make those stories—[their two dreams]—coexist and intertwine.

CC: I only learned about Danny Chen in adulthood because the opera exists. He was a Manhattan Chinatown kid who loved restaurants and fast food. What struck you the most about him?
HR: Danny is an American boy 100 percent, no question about it. His first language, or maybe his only language, is English. And he loves, as you say, fast food, and he grew up in an environment that is what we call the “Home of the Free, Land of the Brave,” and everyone should have equal opportunity to chase the American Dream. And everyone should be treated equally, but the reality failed him. And I could not think of any more heroism than joining the military to protect people and his country. If that is not 100 percent American, what is? But yeah, he was still hazed and mistreated because of his race, because of his name, because of his look, because of his skin color.

What happened to Danny is not one isolated incident. And of course, we want to trace back [the violence] to the Chinese Exclusion Act. And even before that, you also have the Page Act and a [general] history of mistreatment of Asian Americans, not just Chinese Americans.

A portrait of composer Huang Ruo in a black shirt and pants, against a beige background.

Composer Huang Ruo.

Jeremy Daniel

CC: I find many Asian American viewers in 2024 will have takeaways different from its 2014 premiere. They might discuss themes like imperialism, toxic masculinity, and assimilation.
HR: Absolutely. In a way, I think 2024 is more common for people to be daring enough to talk about things like this. But back in 2014 when we created the opera, it was a shock for people to see an opera with such a subject…I still remember there was one critic [who] wrote a review, calling An American Soldier bombastically “anti-American.” If you ask me about these kinds of things, I feel very sad about it, being labeled as such. Imagine my librettist David Henry Hwang, who is like Danny, born and raised in this country and whose language is English, and he was called “anti-American.” I could only imagine, it must be so painful for him—even more so than me. People ask me where I “really” come from. I could still tell them “I’m from Asia.” If they ask David Henry Hwang, David is from California. David told me that sometimes people say [the microaggression], “How do you speak English so well?”

CC: You and Hwang are working on a Monkey King opera, based on the oft-adapted Journey to the West, as a San Francisco Opera commission slated for 2025. I’m Vietnamese and I grew up with the Monkey King story.
HR: Our Monkey King opera is a timely subject. It's not just a traditional [telling of] Monkey King. The idea, actually, is born out of the pandemic. There were waves of anti-Asian sentiments, discrimination, and attacks even in New York City. I was watching Asian kids, including my children, wearing Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman as costumes. Those are the superheroes. So at a time like that, where's the Asian superhero? Monkey King. I think it's about time to really create a story to let these young Asian American kids know they also have an Asian superhero [who] existed for hundreds of years.

CC: It’s neat you also will have something at the Met Opera. I believe this makes you the second Asian American composer to have an opera at the Met, after Tan Dun [who composed The First Emperor in collaboration with director Zhang Yimou].
HR: Right after Monkey King, I will create an opera for the Met, The Wedding Banquet [adapting Ang Lee’s 1993 rom-com movie].

Playwright David Henry Hwang and composer Huang Ruo stand together, dressed in black against a gray background.

From left, playwright David Henry Hwang and composer Huang Ruo.

Jeremy Daniel

CC: There’s a movement to produce new works, and not just by dead composers. What can you say about growing AA+PI and BIPOC representation in the opera industry?
HR: It's still a long way to go, and I'm glad our environment has been improved. I started at a time when opera with Asian subjects were not written by Asian or Asian American creators. And again, we had Puccini writing Turandot and Madame Butterfly [which Huang and Hwang deconstructed through their operatic M. Butterfly, flipping the white Western gaze on its head] so that is not new. But we are in a different century, and if we’re still not improving, then that [remains] the problem. People like to define what is new to opera today, what is “American new opera.” To me, multiculturalism is one kind of new opera. You see more Black composers creating great operas. We should also have more Asian American composers create stories from our community. In that sense, the opera world should reflect our real world where we live in a very diverse environment.

CC:  What do you hope the audience will take away from An American Soldier?
HR: I often feel opera is a place to provoke the audience to ask questions. We don't necessarily provide answers, but I think it's important for others to seek out why this happened. What can we do to prevent that in the future? What happened to Danny Chen, and through what happened to him, could ask what qualifies as “American” and what does not, [and] why there are people [mis]treating others just because they are different. So it's not just one instance, but this is a big question I want to ask.

An American Soldier is playing at Manhattan-based Perelman Performing Arts Center from May 12-19.

Published on May 7, 2024

Words by Caroline Cao

Caroline Cao is an NYC-based writer. A queer Vietnamese American woman, she also won’t shut up about animation and theatre. She likes ramen, pasta, and fanfic writing. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Maximinalist.