An Opera Remembers The Tragedy Of An Asian-American Soldier : Code Switch Army Pvt. Danny Chen fatally shot himself in Afghanistan in 2011. The real-life tragedy has inspired a new production by the Washington National Opera with a libretto by playwright David Henry Hwang.

An Opera Remembers The Tragedy Of An Asian-American Soldier

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A new opera that's ripped from the headlines premieres tonight at the Kennedy Center, here in Washington, D.C. It's inspired by the story of Army Private Danny Chen. The 19-year-old killed himself while serving in Afghanistan in 2011. Hansi Lo Wang, of NPR's Code Switch team, reports on the production by Washington National Opera.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: About two years ago, playwright David Henry Hwang turned down an offer to write a play about the brief life and suicide of Private Danny Chen. But an opera? He couldn't refuse.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: This is a story with big emotions, big primary colors, in a way, and big plot events. A young man from New York City, Chinatown who, against all probability, decides that he wants to enroll in the Army and go to Afghanistan.


ANDREW STENSON: (As Danny Chen, singing) I want something different, a life that's right for me...

HWANG: And then his conflict with his superiors there who begin to haze him, racially motivated and leading to his eventual death over there.

WANG: The hour-long opera is called, "An American Soldier." David Henry Hwang's libretto is based on news accounts about Danny Chen's life. During his six weeks in Afghanistan, a group of Chen's superiors showered him with racial slurs almost daily, and once hurled rocks at him.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) Everyone knows that Asians are weak, good at their books. That's not what I need...

WANG: The opera revolves around a fictional court-martial of one of Chen's superiors. Eight soldiers, including one officer, were charged in connection with Chen's death. All were either demoted or dismissed from the Army, and most received brief prison sentences. To better understand this story, David Henry Hwang says he consulted with members of the military.

HWANG: 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.

WANG: Chen's death did help 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.


STENSON: Danny and I are different people, but we are young, Asian-Americans in the United States. You know, even though you were born here or raised here, some people are still going to treat you like you're a foreigner.

WANG: At a recent street naming ceremony honoring Danny Chen in New York City's Chinatown, Chen's mother, Su Zhen, offered a tearful thanks in Toisanese to supporters.


SU ZHEN CHEN: (Toisanese spoken).

WANG: Almost three years since Danny's death, his immigrant parents continue to grapple with the loss of their only child, who enlisted against his mother's wishes.


HUANG RUO: It is a very sad story. But as a society, we need to come together to learn from it.

WANG: For the opera's last scene, composer Huang Ruo wrote a simple, haunting melody. It's a lullaby that Danny Chen's mother sings to help soothe her departed son.

RUO: It starts with, (singing) sleep now, little one. Do not fear. Do not cry. Like the stars above, I'll watch over you.

That's the opening of the lullaby. And when it's sung in the mezzo-soprano voice, it's just - I don't know. It's magical.


GUANG YANG: (As Su Zhen Chen, singing) So long as I am here nothing will harm you...

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


YANG: The heart of the opera is the relationship between mother and the son because the mother is fighting, keep fighting, never stop, seeking this justice for her son. That's how we got here.

WANG: Danny Chen's mother and father are planning to see Saturday's performance of "An American Soldier." Danny left a message for them before taking his own life. In black ink, he wrote on his forearm, tell my parents I'm sorry. Hansi Lo Wang. NPR News, Washington.


YANG: (As Su Zhen Chen, singing) Sleep now, little one. Do not fear. Do not cry. Like a stars above, I watch over you. So long as I am here, nothing will harm you. So close your eyes. Sleep little one. Sleep now in peace. Sleep until dawn.


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