All Classical Radio James Depreist

Finding her place: Lyric soprano Karen Vuong

The Asian-American singer recently shone in Huang Ruo's “Bound” with Seattle Opera and “Rusalka” with Portland Opera.

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Karen Vuong as Diane Tran in "Bound" at Seattle Opera. Photo by Sunny Martini.
Karen Vuong as Diane Tran in “Bound” at Seattle Opera. Photo by Sunny Martini.

Karen Vuong sings the role in Bound of second-generation Vietnamese-American high school junior Diane Tran. In a bizarre and shocking twist to an immigrant story, Tran was jailed by a by-the book judge because she missed too much school. The cause? She was working two jobs when her parents abandoned their children in a suburb outside of Houston, Texas. Tran’s is a true story that surfaced in the news in 2012.

In response, Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo wrote a dream-like, fragmented one-act 60-minute opera of Tran’s story. Bound premiered in 2014 at the Houston Grand Opera. This year, it played June 9 through 18 at Seattle Opera’s intimate Tagney Jones Hall in a slightly different version. See my review of Bound in Classical Voice North America.

From left: Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Khanh, Karen Vuong as Diane Tran, and Daniel Klein as Judge Moriarty in "Bound" at Seattle Opera. Photo by Sunny Martini.
From left: Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Khanh, Karen Vuong as Diane Tran, and Daniel Klein as Judge Moriarty in “Bound” at Seattle Opera. Photo by Sunny Martini.

Huang Ruo, 46, has written nine operas, and several of them are about second-generation Asians, including The Rift about Maya Lin, and An American Soldier, a story of a second-generation Chinese-American young man who committed suicide in the military. Huang Ruo’s operas explore why second-generation Asian-Americans who speak perfect English, attend American schools with other Americans, and achieve high or higher grades than their peers, don’t feel at home in the United States. 

“We can only reflect on history as artists, and hope that history will not repeat itself. But it does. When we feel we 100 percent belong, we can answer questions,” the composer said in a June phone interview, “Otherwise we have to ask them.”

Vuong, 38, is an up-and-coming lyric soprano who has appeared in four Seattle Opera productions and the recent Portland Opera Rusalka. She was hand-picked by Huang Ruo, who conducted Bound infused with a libretto by second-generation Vietnamese-American poet Bao-Long Chu. Vuong had sung the part of Maya Lin in The Rift in 2021 during the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary, and Huang Ruo loved her voice and admired her acting ability. “She could interpret the music and the struggle of the character, express emotions, the tears, the laughter. The composer knows the work and what kind of voice will work for it.”

The “modernly melodic” music, as Vuong calls the Bound score — a mix of East and West notes, melodies and phrases accompanied by VIetnamese instruments, the 16-string zitherlike dan trahn and the haunting dan bao that sounds like a human voice— pushed her to reach a high C. Huang Ruo didn’t have to change one note for her to pull off her two major arias.

Instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ plays the đàn tranh in "Bound" at Seattle Opera. Photo by Sunny Martini.
Instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ plays the đàn tranh in “Bound” at Seattle Opera. Photo by Sunny Martini.

Similar but different

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Other than being a hard worker, a bright high-achieving girl, and a second-generation Vietnamese-American, Vuong doesn’t have a lot in common with Tran, whose life turned into nightmare when her parents bailed and she was saddled with providing for herself and for her siblings and trying to keep up her straight-A honors grade average.

Vuong grew up with professional parents in Los Angeles who left Asia in the mid-‘70s. Of Chinese lineage, they were born in Vietnam and educated at the University of Tokyo, and Vuong describes them as “very pan-Asian.”

Even with her family’s guidance and insistence on excellence, she had her lapses in good behavior, she said. As a girl enthusiastic about music, she sang Phantom of the Opera at inopportune times and was a bit disruptive at middle school. Still, at every turn, her parents helped her tune and turn her singing passion into a profession when it was clear that she had a shot at becoming an opera singer.

Despite the privileges Vuong had, she feels empathy for her Bound character, she said in an interview between rehearsals in Seattle. “I feel a lot for her (Tran). I get it. Being a child of immigrants makes you very aware of what your family has gone through to give you opportunities. You never forget the importance of education, or the importance of trying to ride the bus when things were hard.”

She used to believe that she was programmed by her family “to be the best. But my parents have since amended it to `you have to do your best.’”

And, as Huang Ruo adds, “Immigrant parents often expect their children to be perfect.”

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Vuong’s resume is impressive, and it follows the path of a person planning to excel. Even though she was torn between music and a veterinarian career, she chose music. Once she made the decision, she pursued it with full heart and head, especially after her parents warned her to stick with it. She attended Juilliard’s prestigious Artist Diploma Program, and before that as a girl and teen, schools for gifted and musical students. She was accepted into the Los Angeles Domingo-Thornton Young Artists program for two years, graduated from UCLA in music, and worked from 2013-2019 with a stable of singers for the Frankfurt opera (Oper Frankfurt) in Germany, singing, she said, “a ton of roles.” Throughout her career, she has won enviable awards, including the Eastern Regional Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions first prize in 2013, and in 2011, first place in the Marilyn Horne Lieder Competition.

She is now freelancing, and recently sang the lead water nymph in Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka in Portland Opera’s spring production. It was a “stamina role” that put her main character on stage much of the time. And even in Act Two, when she is mute, “when she does sing, she has to be ready to do one of the most dramatic arias in the show,” Vuong said.

Her Bound role drew equally on her stamina and required her to be on stage for the entire 60 minutes. “No water breaks,” she said. She sings in every scene and has a number of emotional exchanges with her long-gone mother (mezzo Nina Yoshida Nelsen), who reappears in ghostly fashion, cheap suitcase in hand, throughout the opera to explain herself to her daughter and why she is “bound” to her Vietnam traumas and convinced that her kids would be better off without her. 

Karen Vuong as Diane Tran (left) and Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Khanh (right) in "Bound" at Seattle Opera. Photo by Sunny Martini.
Karen Vuong as Diane Tran (left) and Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Khanh (right) in “Bound” at Seattle Opera. Photo by Sunny Martini.

In addition to her voice quality and stage stamina, Vuong is a good actress, said Huang Ruo. She is twice the age of the teenager she portrayed in Bound, and yet entirely convincingly played a girl in a hoodie and jeans. Partially due to her tirelessness, immediately after Bound, she will start rehearsing Konigskinder in Erl, Austria, for the Tiroler Festspiele Eri festival.

Despite the upward trajectory of her career, she has encountered racism and bias in the mostly white opera world that has only recently opened up to productions with people of color–and to pieces composed by people of color. Though her European experience showed opera companies to be more color-blind than those in the U.S., she said, “in America it’s a little trickier. They mostly cast white. In Frankfurt, I could play countesses. I had the voice for it.”

Some of the prejudicial and racist comments she has heard about Asian singers: They don’t emote. They’re not loud enough. Huang Ruo adds, “they fade into the wall.”

Yet singing only Asian roles traps her in another box, though she has thrived performing Huang Ruo’s operas, and will likely continue with Bound and The Rift when Huang Ruo pairs them in the future, as he plans. 

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Though she’s giving her opera career her all, Vuong says, “trying to get in front of people is hard. I’m trying to find my place in the American scene.”

When she does, she hopes to be able to turn Giacomo Puccini’s often staged Madama Butterfly “on its head, give it a different spin. How do we tell that story that doesn’t have to follow the stereotypes? It has a good amount of moving parts, but maybe I’ll find a director who wants to change it.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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