Huang Ruo: An American Soldier premiered in the USA

Huang Ruo: An American Soldier premiered in the USA

An extended version of An American Soldier by Huang Ruo has given its world premiere in June at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis – and found strong appeal by the audience and press alike. An interview with conductor Michael Christie, specialized in the production of contemporary operas, allows us to gain an impression of Huang Ruo’s music, the special role of opera within political discourse and the current situation facing this art form in the United States.

Picture of An American Soldier
An American Soldier, St. Louis 2018

An American Soldier (2018)

Opera in two acts (full-length version)
Libretto: David Henry Hwang
2S.Ms.T.Bar.Bbar.B – vocal ensemble – – – 2perc – str
Duration: 120’
WP: Opera Theatre of St. Louis, 2018

Press quotes

»An American Soldier, having its premiere in an expanded two-act version here at Opera Theater of St. Louis and seen on Saturday, is convincing, driven by Mr. Hwang’s rueful libretto and 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 and 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" [...] Both the subtle colorings and pummeling intensity came through in the compelling performance the conductor Michael Christie drew from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.«
The New York Times, 13.06.2018

»Nothing is ever stable in Mr. Huang haunting music, which reflects Danny’s adolescent turmoil and the violent undercurrent of military life. Even in overtly peaceful moments, like a duet in which Josephine and Danny look at the moon from opposite sides of the globe, the mood is one of loss rather than sentimental recollection. The eerie sound of a didgeridoo accompanies Danny’s ghost, and while Mr. Huang doesn’t employ Chinese instruments, hints of their percussive and timbral qualities permeate the score, suggesting that Danny’s Chinese identity goes deeper than he’d like to believe. The vocal writing is similarly evocative.«
The Wall Street Journal, 12.06.2018

»Conductor Michael Christie, who has shown great skill and sensitivity in the past with everything from Puccini to John Adams, once again directs the orchestra of (mostly) St. Louis Symphony musicians in a persuasive performance of a score that employs a variety of non-traditional sounds.«
KDHX, 05.06.2018

»If you’re relatively new to opera, you’ll encounter fewer harmony-rich choruses than you might expect; often, composer Huang Ruo is more interested in contrasting his lead performer Andrew Stenson’s delicate, melting tenor with the kind of anxious, frenzied orchestrations that make the listener feel Danny Chen’s anxiety deep in their own skin. Hwang cites jazz, Western avant-garde and Chinese folk music as influences. Even opera diehards might not expect his orchestra, which features a didgeridoo. But as complex as “An American Soldier” is, it would also be an excellent entry point for any potential audience member who’s unsure about opera but curious to trying. The story is gripping, timely, briskly told and constantly challenging the audience to supply their own answers to difficult and vital questions.«
Alive Magazine, 05.06.2018

»Ruo's music was an intriguing blend of East and West, varying according to character; it was spiky, but that suited the subject matter. The musical effects for the ghostly version of Danny were effective in establishing the mood. It tells a powerful and important story.«
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 2018

Read more reviews

Picture of An American Soldier
An American Soldier, St. Louis 2018

Interview with Michael Christie

Mr Christie, in June you’ll be conducting the premiere of the expanded, full-length version of An American Soldier. The opera depicts young Danny Chen, the son of Chinese immigrants, who is proud to join the US Army, but, finding himself there a victim of xenophobia, he questions the meaning of patriotism, cultural identity and “otherness” and is ultimately and tragically crushed by his situation. This raises intensely topical questions about what it means to be an American. Is opera an appropriate medium for this discussion?

Opera is a perfect medium for this topic as it allows the audience to experience many bold angles as well as nuanced emotion on the topics raised. The audience is able to connect with the concepts presented over time rather than a 30 second television summary.
How is the subject expressed in Huang Ruo’s music?

There is an emotional tension between the events as they happened in “real life” and how Danny Chen recalls them in his memories throughout the score. Huang Ruo keeps the listeners’ ears close to the drama with thematic unity through the work.
In the New York Times you have been described as “a director open to adventure and challenge”. Where do you see the challenges in An American Soldier for you as conductor?

I’m always trying to dive deeply into the composer’s emotional language and advocate for it with the vocalists and instrumentalists. Composers are always evolving their musical language so I think it’s important to be as open as I can be and then make sure to allow that point of view to be heard as clearly as possible.

Picture of Michael Christie
Michael Christie

What has been your experience collaborating with Huang Ruo?

Fmore Huang Ruo has been a gracious collaborator. He is fully invested in the decisions he has made to make the drama come to life as he sees it and supports the development process of those charged with realizing his vision.
As music director of Minnesota Opera, among other posts, you have realized numerous contemporary opera productions. What obstacles do projects like An American Soldier face given the current background of cultural and political change in the United States?

Culturally, we are experiencing a surge of new work with emerging artists in the opera field in particular. The challenge, rather than obstacle is the learning curve producers are experiencing for supporting new work. However, people are getting behind the workshop process more effectively and engaging with more artists to support the potential of new work - there are a lot of barriers being confronted and broken down. In many ways, we are still grappling with the repercussions of the Global Financial Crisis, a tight labor market and intense competition for private support. The good news is that by and large, the idea of new American opera isn’t a new concept to most audiences. Now we must focus on making sure the topics make sense to be expressed in this genre, the storytelling is clear and the music takes the listener on a compelling journey. Put that together with the other artisans involved in opera and we have a strong formula for success going forward.

Picture of An American Soldier
An American Soldier, St. Louis 2018


Photos: J. David Levy (An American Soldier), Michal Daniel (Michael Christie)