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Opera remembers the tragedy of Asian-American soldier Army Pvt. Danny Chen

 

About two years ago, playwright David Henry Hwang turned down an offer to write a play about the brief life and suicide of Army Pvt. Danny Chen.

But an opera? He couldn’t refuse.

This is a story with big emotions, big primary colors in a way, and big plot events,” says Hwang, who wrote the libretto for An American Soldier, a new hourlong opera commissioned by Washington National Opera.

Set to premiere on Friday at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the production is based on news accounts of Chen’s life and the investigation into his death. The American-born son of Chinese immigrants, Chen was raised in New York City’s Chinatown and enrolled in the Army after high school.

During his six weeks in Afghanistan, his superiors showered him with racial slurs almost daily and once hurled rocks at him. Just months after he enlisted, the 19-year-old soldier was found dead in a guard tower at his base with a self-inflicted gunshot.

The opera focuses on a fictional court-martial of one of Chen’s superiors. In real life, eight soldiers, including one officer, were charged in connection with his death. All were either demoted or dismissed from the Army, and most received brief prison sentences. To better understand the story, Hwang says he consulted with members of the military.

Most of them feel that it’s understandable that this could happen, particularly in a battlefield in Afghanistan, where all of a sudden there’s no checks and balances,” he says.

 

Treated ‘Like You’re A Foreigner’

Chen’s death helped drive legislation signed by President Obama last year that required new reviews of the military’s response to hazing.

But for tenor Andrew Stenson, who plays Chen in the opera, this story isn’t just about bullying in the military.

Danny and I are different people, but we’re young Asian-Americans in the United States,” Stenson says. “Even though you were born here or raised here, some people are still going to treat you like you’re a foreigner.”

Almost three years since Chen’s death, his parents continue to grapple with the loss of their only child, who enlisted against his mother’s wishes. At a recent street co-naming ceremony honoring Chen in New York City’s Chinatown, his mother, Su Zhen Chen, offered a tearful thanks to supporters.

I hope that from now on even more people will know what happened to my Danny,” Su Zhen Chen said in Toisanese at the unveiling of a new street sign for a portion of New York’s Elizabeth Street, which is now co-named “Pvt. Danny Chen Way.”

 

Learning From A ‘Very Sad’ Story

Composer Huang Ruo, who wrote the music for An American Soldier, admits his latest project focuses on a “very sad” story.

But as a society, we need to come together to learn from it,” he adds.

For the opera’s last scene, Huang wrote a simple, haunting melody to accompany Hwang’s lyrics for a lullaby. “Sleep now, little one. Do not fear. Do not cry,” sings the character Mother Chen to help soothe her departed son. “Like the stars above, I’ll watch over you.”

When it’s sung in the mezzo-soprano voice, it’s magical,” Huang says.

 

That mezzo-soprano voice comes from Guang Yang, who plays Chen’s mother in the opera. Yang says the opera is a tribute to Su Zhen Chen’s commitment to keeping her son’s story alive.

The heart of the opera is the relationship between mother and son,” Yang explains. “Because the mother is fighting, keeps fighting, never stops seeking this justice for her son, that’s how we got here.”

Danny Chen’s mother and father are planning to travel to Washington to see Saturday’s performance. Before taking his own life, Chen left a message for them in black ink on his forearm: “Tell my parents I’m sorry.”

 

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Opera remembers the tragedy of Asian-American soldier Army Pvt. Danny Chen

 

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Lea Salonga, Charice, apl.de.ap to lead Kennedy Center concert for Typhoon Haiyan survivors

 

 

Lea Salonga, Charice, and apl.de.ap will lead a star-studded concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC on June 15 to raise funds for survivors of super typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) that devastated central Philippines last year.

The Washington-based Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC) in an e-mail to the Philippines News Agency on Saturday said the concert is an initiative of the Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia.

Grace Valera, MHC co-director, said other Filipino groups such as Philippine Humanitarian Coalition and the US Philippines Society are coordinating activities related to the event to ensure the success of the concert.

Hollywood star Lou Diamond Phillips, whose mother is a Filipino, will also be part of the concert.

In a statement, Valera said: “Every ticket counts as the funds raised will go to typhoon relief programs in the Philippines. This is our opportunity, as a united community in the Capital Region (Washington), to show our continued support.

“Please take a moment to remember that so many Filipinos lost their lives and millions were displaced as a result of typhoon Haiyan. We all know there is a lot of work to do. But, in order to continue the progress that has already been made, we need to find it in our hearts to continue to give what we can. It is a sacrifice on our part, but it is worth it to help improve the livelihood of our brothers and sisters in need. Their current struggle is something that many of us can’t even imagine,” Valera added.

Typhoon Yolanda was the world’s strongest to hit landfall in over 100 years that devastated the islands of Samar and Leyte, particularly Tacloban City, on November 8, 2013, killing over 7,000 people. Other areas in central Visayas were also devastated.

Seven months after, thousands of survivors are still without homes.

The Philippine government with the help of the international community has launched a massive rehabilitation effort.

 

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Lea Salonga, Charice, apl.de.ap to lead concert for Typhoon Haiyan survivors