A Note from the Composer: Inspiring Reflection Through Music


An American Soldier started as a one-act chamber docu-opera that was premiered at the Washington National Opera in 2014 as part of its American Opera Initiative. Now, thanks to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s New Works, Bold Voices series, David Henry Hwang and I have been given this precious opportunity to expand it horizontally, vertically, and dimensionally into a two-act, full-length opera. Our new version tells Pvt. Danny Chen’s story with greater scope, detail, nuance, and depth, primarily through the unbreakable bond between a grieving mother and her beloved son. It posits timeless yet timely questions about the American creed and what it means to be an American. In 2014, it felt important to ask who gets to be accepted as an American, and how our nation draws its strength and power from the diversity of its people. In 2018, this exploration feels even more critical.

One of the challenges we faced was how to create an opera about a true event that occurred so recently. If the goal were just to document what happened to Pvt. Danny Chen, then a documentary film would have been more suitable. Opera can, however, achieve something that no other art form can. With opera, the impact of a story can be deepened and transformed through music. One of opera’s greatest strengths is inspiring people to feel, reflect, and seek. This was our motivation for An American Soldier.

Like my past works, An American Soldier is created with the technique of dimensionalism, in which multiple musical layers and elements co-exist in time and space. Dimensionalism not only creates characters in the micro level, but also creates structure in the macro level. This new full- length version, which runs around 120 minutes, starts with a court-martial in which a heartbroken mother fights for justice for her beloved son, and ends with the same mother bidding her son farewell by singing a touching lullaby. Above all, the story of Pvt. Danny Chen is a profoundly human story, which should reach far, and bear no barriers, boundaries, or limits.

Photo: After multiple years of advocating by the Asian-American community, a block of Elizabeth Street in Chinatown, NYC was renamed Private Danny Chen Way in 2014 as part of the annual memorial services in his honor.