One day in 2012, TV viewers in Houston watched as Diane Tran, a 17-year-old Vietnamese-American and honor student, was led away from a courtroom to jail. Her crime: missing too many days of school, because she was exhausted from working two jobs to support her family.
Diane’s American dream—work hard, get ahead—had collided with Asian ideals of filial duty. With her family splintered by divorce and both parents absent, Diane was bound by centuries of tradition to care for her siblings, even as she tried to complete her own education. Under Texas law, the school system could take her to court for truancy, which it eventually did.
Soon thereafter, the Houston Grand Opera approached composer Huang Ruo for a new work based on this notorious case. The resulting piece is an hour-long, one-act chamber opera titled Bound, premiered in Houston in 2014 and having its first New York performances at Baruch Performing Arts Center. Monday night’s performance presented a well-staged and affecting coproduction by BPAC and Fresh Squeezed Opera.
In real life, public outrage got Diane freed after just one night locked up, and a crowdfunding campaign raised $100,000 for her and her family (which she thanked people for, then donated to charities for “people who need it more than we do”). But the opera is about Diane’s night in jail, and a dream in which she confronts all the forces buffeting her life.
Stephan Moravski’s set in BPAC’s black box theater was a surrealistic version of Diane’s workplace: a dry-cleaning shop with a long blue counter, its overhead space filled with an explosion of plastic-covered shirts on hangers. Another sheet of plastic film stood in for prison bars in the opera’s opening scene, spotlighting Diane in her cell.
Slim in T-shirt and jeans and animated in manner, soprano Fang-Tao Jiang made a convincing American teenager, and modulated her operatic instrument to fit not only the young character but also the narrow performing space, where the audience was seated on risers 20 feet or less from the singers.
Jiang hooked listeners right away with her anguished jail monologue, asking how a dutiful daughter and diligent student could end up in this place, and longing to see her mother again.
Wishing for restful sleep, Diane instead slipped into troubled dreams. Back in the dry-cleaning shop, her demanding boss Stanley (in a comically robotic performance by baritone Andrew Wannigman) bustled around singing “quick quick quick quick,” as the weary teenager’s thoughts went to her school friends, who were picking out dresses for Prom while she languished in figurative or actual jail.
Next Diane’s mother Khanh appeared to her, a figure tormented by memories of war and death in Vietnam and by her failure as a parent. “I have forsaken my dream,” she sang to a daughter who wondered if her own dream was even reachable. Mezzo-soprano Guang Yang’s burnished, dark voice was somewhat oversized for the space, but eloquent nonetheless. The concise libretto by Vietnamese-born poet Bao-Long Chu was especially compelling in this scene.
Acoustically, the opera’s 10-piece orchestra was weighted at the top (flute, clarinets) and bottom (cellos, trombones) to produce somewhat dissociated sonorities that seemed to draw on the composer’s Chinese background, and also to reflect the cognitive dissonances of Diane’s life.
The only non-Western instrument was the pipa, a Chinese lute, played by Zhou Yi in a touching solo epilogue to the mother’s scene.
Finding no solace in work or family, Diane in her dream now stood before Judge Moriarty, a stone-faced, strident, finger-pointing caricature played to the hilt by bass-baritone Daniel Klein. “Your mother should have taught you better!” he thundered. Diane was wrapped, strait-jacket-style, in a dry-cleaner plastic bag and led away.
In a closing ensemble for the full cast, set homophonically for better intelligibility, each character sang of being “bound,” by tradition or money or the law, to act as they did, while Diane expressed her determination to break the bonds and fly away.
Speaking of intelligibility, the program contained a credit for supertitles “courtesy of Houston Grand Opera,” but none were provided Monday. Opera in English shouldn’t require titles, at least not in such an intimate setting, but on this occasion they would have helped. Some adjustments in vocal placement and diction would have been even better.
That said, director Ashley Tata’s management of the performers in their narrow strip of floor space left little to be desired, and the acting styles from Diane’s naturalism to the others’ dream surrealism seemed entirely appropriate.
Conductor Alex Wen expertly drew a mix of mood-setting sounds, Chinese and Western, from his unconventional ensemble, and supported the singers admirably. David Bengali’s still and video projections on all those hanging shirts added visual interest and occasionally scene-expanding content, as when the real Diane Tran was seen in a video loop being led into a courtroom by police officers.