Thursday, May 25, 2023

Composer Huang Ruo and librettist Bao-Long Chu on Bound

Composer Huang Ruo and librettist Bao-Long Chu’s opera Bound premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2014. Bound will have its West Coast premiere at Seattle Opera June 9–18, with Huang Ruo conducting. The composer-librettist team recently spoke with Seattle Opera to discuss the inspiration for their riveting new work.

Seattle Opera
Bound is based on a true story that occurred in Houston, Texas, in 2012. What drew you to this story and made you want to turn it into an opera?

Huang Ruo
I got the commission for this opera from Houston Grand Opera back in 2013, for their Song of Houston initiative, and I found this Houston-based story about Diane Tran. I was drawn to Diane’s story at the time because I am very interested in Asian American stories—not only because of my own cultural background, but also because of the experiences of young Asian Americans. Many second-generation Asian Americans feel an uncomfortable relationship with their cultural heritage. They were born and raised in America, English is their first language, American culture is their culture—and yet, do they feel like they belong completely?

Bound explores how these young people are often pulled between competing duties: to their schoolwork, to provide for their families, and to the harsh realities of life. I wanted to use this opera to explore those contradictions.

Bao-Long Chu
I’m a Vietnamese refugee myself—my family came over in 1975—and although we had a different experience than Diane’s family, I feel a sense of connection to any story about Vietnamese Americans living with loss. When Huang approached me about creating this piece about the Vietnamese American experience, I initially thought I wanted to write about my mother. My parents were born in North Vietnam and lost everything when the country divided in 1952. After moving south to rebuild their lives, they lost everything once again in 1975, when they came to America. I wanted to tell that story of loss and grief, and how those feelings can turn into guilt. But I needed a frame to make it translate to an audience.

It was by luck that I stumbled on Diane’s story, which provided precisely the framing I needed. Diane was living with a generational trauma that a lot of Vietnamese refugees live with. There is a loss that I think every Vietnamese refugee carries with them daily. And I think America sometimes forgets that the idea of crossing bodies of water to reach new shores is, in many ways, ingrained the American way of life. So it just made sense for me to write this story in a way that not only reflects my particular Vietnamese American experience, but also resonates with all of us as human beings.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Khanh and Lei Xu as Diane in Bound at Houston Grand Opera in 2014. © Mayra Beltran / Houston Chronicle

Seattle Opera
Did you interpolate some of your own mother’s experiences into the character of the mother in the opera?

Bao-Long Chu
Oh, 100%. The news story about Diane was very brief. We know what happened with her night in jail, but we don't know the prologue, so to speak—or what happened afterwards. So I had the luxury of taking that frame and filling out the details. The character of the mother in the opera is fictional, but she helps us explore more deeply the relationship between mother and daughter. It was important to the story to have that perspective.

Seattle Opera
The title of the piece reflects the situation that the main character, Diane Tran, finds herself in—she’s “bound” to conflicting obligations. Can you tell me what it means to you to be “bound” to something?

Bao-Long Chu
Bound is such a rich word because it has multiple layered meanings. It reverberates through all the characters in the story in different ways. For one, it implies a kind of tethering to the past, which we see in the character of the mother. She is bound by loss, by guilt, by grief. She's bound by memories, and you can see in the piece how those memories haunt her. On the other hand, Diane is bound to the rules of young adulthood: to attending school and doing her homework. But because she had been left to take care of her siblings, she’s also bound by duty to her family. She has to make these tough decisions between attending school and working to support her siblings. And finally, the judge is bound to the law. Being a judge means you are bound to make tough decisions.

As humans, we frequently have to make hard decisions. Some decisions are benign, but others leave a wake of grief. In a way, we all have to bear this sort of weight of being human, being conscious of sorrows, and grief, and loss.

News coverage of Diane Tran's sentencing on KHOU-11 in Houston in 2012.

Seattle Opera
What do you hope audiences will get out of this story?

Huang Ruo
I remember seeing an interview with the real Diane Tran, where she tearfully admitted, I thought my family was happy. I’m sure this is not a unique experience. So many young people grow up not knowing what's going on with their parents, thinking everything is fine until one day the bottom falls out. Each character in the opera has their own struggle, their own dilemmas and motivations. When you juxtapose these characters, it becomes a vivid reflection of American society. I want audiences to be able to see themselves in their stories and maybe even understand their own dilemmas a little better.

Seattle Opera
How has your perspective on this story changed since you wrote the piece in 2014?

Huang Ruo
I think the struggle for Asian American rights, instead of getting better, is just more front and center. The same year I created Bound, I also created another opera focused on second-generation Asian Americans called An American Soldier. Both operas premiered in 2014, which, if you’ll remember, was a time when we were still talking about “hope and change.” Racism and discrimination towards Asians and Asian Americans was either not known, not talked about, or simply ignored. But that discrimination has been there for a long, long time—since at least the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 1800s.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, with politicians making false statements scapegoating Asians and Asian Americans, anti-Asian sentiment is even more pervasive. So, unfortunately, it's not something I see that’s getting better. But one hopeful thing I see is that now we can more openly discuss these issues and there are more people willing to listen and willing to pay attention. That, at least, is progress.

Bound runs at Seattle Opera June 9–18, 2023. Tickets and info at

About Huang Ruo
Huang Ruo has been lauded by The New Yorker as “one of the world’s leading young composers” and by The New York Times for having “a distinctive style.” His vibrant and inventive musical voice draws equal inspiration from Chinese ancient and folk music, Western avant-garde, experimental, noise, natural and processed sound, rock, and jazz. As a member of the new generation of Chinese composers, his goal is not just to mix both Western and Eastern elements, but also to create a seamless, organic integration. Huang Ruo’s diverse compositional works span from orchestra, chamber music, opera, theater, and dance, to cross-genre, sound installation, multi-media, experimental improvisation, folk rock, and film.

About Bao-Long Chu
Chu is a storyteller. Originally from Vietnam, his passion for writing led him to the MFA creative writing program at University of Houston. He has written and presented extensively on writing pedagogy, the connection between art and the refugee experience, and nonprofit programming. Currently, Chu is the Program Director of Arts and Parks at Houston Endowment where he oversees the grants strategy to support and grow Houston’s arts, culture, and parks ecosystem. He collaborates with artists and community leaders toward a shared vision of a vibrant city with abundant opportunities to create and connect. The power of art to share and connect human stories inspires his work. Chu’s poems and essays have been published in several anthologies, including The New Anthology of American Poetry: Postmodernisms 1950–Present and From Both Sides Now: The Poetry of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath. His libretto for the opera Bound, composed by Huang Ruo, premiered in Houston in 2014 and in New York in 2019.

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