Friday, June 15, 2018

"E Pluribus Unum" – A Reflection on “An American Soldier” performed by Opera Theater of St. Louis

As part of its ongoing commitment to perform new works, Opera Theater of St. Louis this year commissioned and then presented a two act version of the opera “An American Soldier.”  The music, composed by Huang Ruo to a libretto by the well-known playwright David Henry Hwang (of “M. Butterfly” fame) tells the true story of a 19 year old Chinese-American man who enlists in the Army after high school because he wants to be an American! He wants to be seen as an American and he thinks this is the way to become a real American.  Despite opposition from family and friends and driven by this desire to be completely American (and the Army represents this to him) he enlists.  Initially things go well.  Basic training is a positive experience for him, but once he is stationed first in Fairbanks, Alaska and then shipped off to Kandahar in Afghanistan things go from bad to worse. And the issue is racism – bitter, intense racism. Despite his attempts to get along and do his job he is tormented and miserably abused to the point where he finally can no longer stand it and he commits suicide.  His commanding officer is court-martialed (Sgt. Markum is actually a composite of multiple officers who were court-martialed in 2012). Various witnesses then spin out the story of what happened to Danny over the two acts through flashbacks and short solo testimonies.  It is a chilling story of intense racial abuse (which includes horrible physical abuse) and touches on a variety of parallel issues (like the sexual assault of women in uniform!) And the opera raises a series of difficult questions – such as - who ever thought that having “racial Thursdays” was a good idea (at the base in Fairbanks, for the “good of morale” soldiers were encouraged to insult each other with the most heinous racial slurs they can think of)? Why is there little to no accountability for officers in the field who can behave in any way they want, abusing whoever they want? Why is it that men like Sgt. Marcum feel like the only way they can assert themselves is to put others down?  Why do so many white men like Marcum feel so threatened? Why do women and men who are assaulted find that any attempt to bring their abusers to justice is met by a thick brick wall?

The other important aspect of the story is the relationship between Danny (performed brilliantly by tenor Andrew Stenson) and his mother (beautifully portrayed by mezzo Mika Shigematsu).  Into this story was also included a girlfriend Josephine (also beautifully performed by the great internationally acclaimed coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim). Mother Chen’s struggles were an important part of the story. She cannot understand her son’s intense desire to become Americanized by becoming a soldier.  Initially she and Josephine cannot understand why Danny would choose to turn his back on a full college scholarship in order to enlist? The women simply cannot grasp the importance for young men to feel included and Danny feels separate.  He feels less than whole.  Growing up in Chinatown where he can speak Chinese but cannot write it he feels neither Chinese nor American and he desperately wants to belong.  But ultimately her struggle to understand her son gives way to another struggle: the struggle for justice. She demands justice for her son but finds that she is up against an institution that is unsympathetic.  The heart of this tragic story is found here and I found it deeply moving and upsetting.

            Given all that transpires the great final chorus - E Pluribus Unum – Out of the Many, One! – is less a celebration and more a reminder of how far we have missed the mark and failed.  These words that move the opera to its conclusion are sung as a final choral ensemble and interspersed with a commentary by the Military Judge (the excellent bass Nathan Stark). This nameless judge whose only identification is as the highest ranking officer in the opera – a Colonel – he presides over the court-martial trial that forms the frame of this work.  We are reminded at the outset of this choral ensemble that President Harry Truman had banned any kind of racial discrimination within the armed forces and that for a time the US Armed forces were somewhat of a model for the country, but this is no longer the case.  Nevertheless the judge reminds us that as a people as Americans are “White or Black, Asian, Native or Sikh, Christian, Jewish or Muslim, LGBT” It doesn’t matter.  We are all Americans and it is in this tapestry of diversity where the potential greatness of America is to be found. Whenever we approach greatness as a nation it is directly because of our diversity, but we mostly fail because of our fear of the other, our desire for power and wealth that overwhelms our ability to reach out of ourselves and embrace others. This fear then gives way to hatred – irrational hatred that cuts us off from one another and eats away at the foundation of the nation. The motto of the United States – E Pluribus Unum - points us towards all of this as it also strikes at the heart of this country’s original sin – racism! Ugly, bitter racism bred by fear and hate has always threatened the future of this nation and it will continue to do so. Whatever strength America has will lie in bringing all of the diverse threads of this nation into a whole and those who work against this are working to weaken and destroy.  The words of the motto of the United States additionally indict the current political leadership beginning at the top and including all those who enable this travesty to continue. This administration seems to be bent on destroying everything that this nation stands for. It coddles dictators and white supremacists, it arrests immigrants and in a disgusting and evil twist rips children from their parents and throws resources into a idiotic wall which it thinks will do – what? – keep out immigrants I suppose.  But it won’t.  All it will do is to further weaken and divide the nation and make us even more a pariah on the world stage.

And even though it is not a part of the opera, I have to bring up one of the most insidious dimensions of all of this and that is the Evangelical Christian dimension. It is appalling that so many so-called “Christian” leaders and “Christians” continue to baptize hate and exclusion as being somehow reflective of faith in the one who loved all and calls on all to be open to all. But this isn’t new – “Christians” devised “Manifest Destiny” from the Bible to justify the slaughter of Native peoples and defended the institution of slavery by extracting individual verses from the bible. This is called proof-texting and it works particularly well when you adopt a literalist way of looking at the bible. For with literalism the context doesn’t matter – what went before or comes after doesn’t matter – who Jesus was and what Jesus stands for doesn’t matter – all that matters is extracting the right collection of words from a bible verse in order to pummel an opponent and defend ones hate and racism and homophobia and transphobia and on and on.  But literalism is unfaithful, literalism is evil and is in fact a denial of scripture.  Context enables us to understand exactly what the scripture says and in this case it is pretty clear (with any number of rather explicit verses available as well) – racism is evil; hate is evil! We who claim to be Christians are called to love and love includes standing up and defending those who need defending.  Love also demands that we hold our leaders accountable. The progressive rotting of the fabric of this nation will continue until we can find a way to embrace our diversity. If America is ever to be great this is what will make America great = embracing diversity!

There is another issue that struck me profoundly by this performance and is related to the behavior of the audience. I have found it curious that predominately white audiences seem to have a tendency to cheer those perceived to be good guys and to boo those perceived to be the villains. No “gray” area here – it is either one or the other – good or bad! And it happens all the time. Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” is a perfect example. Invariably no matter where the opera is performed in the United States the white American character – Lt. B.F. Pinkerton - is always booed by the white American audiences. Why? The way he treats Butterfly? His attitudes towards others who are different than he is perhaps? But these attitudes are shared by the Consul, Sharpless, by the way and he is never booed. These attitudes were also the collective philosophy of the nation in the late 19th century and we are complicit in them since we have benefited from them. So, what is the point?  Are we attempting to assuage our own collective guilt by painting Pinkerton as “the bad guy” and booing him.  Does it make us feel superior to be able to identify, briefly at least with the abandoned Japanese woman who we just watched commit suicide on stage?

At the performance of “An American Soldier” I found the booing of Wayne Tigges (who plays Sgt. Marcum) absolutely appalling. Who do they think they are booing?  Marcum?  First of all, the point of curtain calls is that we finally get to meet and express our appreciation to the performers and artists, not the characters. It was not Sgt. Marcum who came out for a bow, it was Wayne Tigges who brilliantly performed this difficult role and was able to convey a variety of different dimensions of this complex character.  But even more important is that we must see that Sgt. Marcum is us! He is especially us white folks who think we are better than everyone else, who glory in our white privilege and feel threatened and fearful by those who are other.  To boo this character is a pathetic attempt to distance ourselves from this reality.  But you can boo all you want because the reality remains – we are all Sgt. Marcum and the sooner we recognize this and begin to address it the better it will be for us as a people!

Opera Theater of St. Louis has again presented a new work that is not only timely but in every way deeply moving and profoundly challenging. I was so affected by the performance last night I could not sleep. All of us need to take this message to heart – it is, after all, the motto of our nation: E Pluribus Unum.  In that little phrase is contained all that is necessary to “make American great…” – I won’t use the word “again” because it is irrelevant. American’s greatness, such as it is, has always been found in its diversity. And if America is ever to achieve any taste of greatness it will be because we find a way to embrace this gift of diversity.

(Feel free to comment.  But please note that I will not tolerate hate speech and such comments will be swiftly deleted!)

For more information about the remaining performances and for photos of the performance go to: