Monday, May 14, 2018

Female Characters

I often hear about Strong Female Characters in stories.  In recent years I have heard the term used more and more frequently; so much so that I'm wondering if people even know what they are talking about.  
      Sure, we all love our women characters to be strong and independent.  I grew up with characters like Princess Leia and her mother Padme from Star Wars.  My favorite cartoon series (and by that I mean the only cartoon series I watch at all at this point) is all about young mares who learn about friendship and protect their home from evil.  But what is a Strong Female Character (SFC)?  And how do we differentiate between her and an Obligatory Feminist Archetype (OFA)?  

The first place to start would be characterization.  Does the woman have both strengths and weaknesses?  A good writer knows that that character is more interesting if she has qualities that are both good and bad.  For example, Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series is very intelligent, in fact, she's the best student in Hogwarts.  She is not afraid to speak her mind and desires to help those who most need it.  But she can also be an annoying know-it-all and sometimes doesn't think her ideas through.  This combination of virtues and flaws make her an interesting three-dimensional character.  
      Another thing to consider is that an SFC can be found in any role, traditional or otherwise.  Molly Weasley is an example of an SFC in a more traditional feminine role, that of the stay-at-home mother.  She is devoted to her family and friends and cares about their safety.  She looks after the house while her husband is at work and her kids are at Hogwarts.  But she is certainly no pushover.  Anyone foolish enough to get between her and her family—particularly her childrenwill more than likely find themselves in the afterlife.  
     Teneniel Djo of the Star Wars franchise is an example of an SFC in a non-traditional female role, the Amazon.  She is a huntress who roams the planet Dathomir.  She is a tough warrior and does not shy away from a fight.  Although she does not know it as the Force, she knows she is powerful and proves an invaluable ally to Luke Skywalker and Company when they are on Dathomir.  But she is not without vulnerability.  She is wandering soul because she was ousted from her clan and is trying to avoid the evil Nightsisters.  And she gradually learns that a man may want to be her partner and not so much her slave.  
       And an SFC understands the value of companionship.  Even if she is a fiercely independent woman, she will acknowledge that she cannot do everything on her own.  She may not want the man to stand in front of her and take the bullet, but she will be more than happy if he's watching her back from a distance and taking down those whom she does not see coming. 

An OFA at first sounds like an SFC, but in fact she is a kind of Mary Sue.  The first thing to notice is that she will be an insufferable equality queen** who is always right.  Tauriel from the Hobbit films exhibits this behavior in The Desolation of Smaug when she bluntly says, "This is our fight." She is always right in the film and Thranduil is almost always wrong.  This is not a mark of strength but of arrogance.  The love-triangle thing didn't help matters either*.  
        The OFA can only be found in one role, an exaggerated form of tomboy known as the Girl-in-Boy's-Clothes.  This is a woman character who holds traditional feminine trappings in contempt and acts as tough as she possibly can and is always better than the men.  Rey from the Disney canon behaves like a tough girl every chance she gets.  She defeats an evil overlord in less than a minute and is more powerful than Luke Skywaker.  She uses her anger on a regular basis and belittles the men around her.  And Disney wants her to be role model? 
      Finally, the OFA's entire purpose is to promote an agenda.  She will not have any personality save for whatever socio-political ideas the author wants to trumpet.  This means that any other characters in the story who are not the OFA will fade into the background and have little to no relevance no matter how often they appear.  And when that happens, the story dies.  
To sum it all up Strong Female Characters are likeable, fun, and entertaining.  Obligatory Feminist Archetypes are annoying, insufferable, and boring.  A woman should not have to cast aside all things feminine in order to be strong.  And no one wants to be around anyone who thinks she's right all the time.  Obligatory Feminist Archetypes give Strong Female Characters a bad name and should never be used in stories again. 
If there is anyone reading this who bore witness to the horrific argument between me and my brother as we were leaving the now-defunct Eastgate Cinema in Madison on December 14th, 2013, I apologize for my rash behavior.  It was wrong of me to go into a purist fan rage in public. 

**An equality queen is a woman who fights for equality in a self-righteous manner. 

Updated 5-16-18 at 6:13 pm

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Russian Music

It's not every day you get to hear Russian Folk Music live.  I've had the good fortune to experience it twice in one month.  The UW Madison's Russian Folk Orchestra is a mostly string ensemble made up of largely of balalaikas (a triangular lute), and domras (a relative of the mandolin).  Also included are a flute and oboe, a tambourine, and occasionally drums and chimes.  

My family went on April the 14th to see them RFO perform at the Stoughton Opera House, and then two nights ago I took my brother to see them perform at Oakwood Village in Madison. 

I could not find fault with the performance at all.  What I can say is that it's a very unique experience to hear these traditional instruments in action.  Some of the songs were traditional tunes, some were original pieces, and some were arrangements of Classical music redone for traditional instruments.  The maestro wrote a few interesting tunes, the one we heard performed was an instrumental piece based off of Pushkin's poem "The Cart of Life".  But perhaps the ones that stuck out to me the most were an arrangement of Scott Joplin's "The Easy Winners" of all things, the "Butterfly Polka", the Russian folk song "The Moon Shines", and an arrangement of Khachaturian's famous "Sabre Dance" from his ballet The Corsair

 I think I'll go see them again next season.

Monday, March 12, 2018

SEMIRAMIDE: Power Play in Ancient Mesopotamia

It's about time I did another review!

I had heard of Rossini's little-known opera Semiramide, but had never heard it before until this past Saturday.  Angela Meade sang the title role, with Elizabeth DeShong and Ildar Abdrazokov in the roles of the warrior Arsace and the villain Assur, respectively.  Javier Camarena was the lovelorn foreign king Indreno, whose role appears to be limited to a minor subplot.  And Ryan Speedo Green was Oroe, the high priest of Baal. 

Semiramide is based off of the legend of Semiramis, a notorious queen of Babylon who had many lovers and was married at least twice.  Perhaps one of the most well-known stories about her is that she succeeded the throne upon the death of her husband, Ninus, although some versions have Semiramis murdering Ninus.

The story is complicated, so I'll give a brief synopsis.

Semiramide is preparing to name a successor.  She is in love with the young warrior, Arsace, whom she has summoned to the palace.  But the conniving Assur wants the throne for himself, and he knows the queen's deep dark secret.  Fifteen years prior, the two of them poisoned Semiramide's husband, King Ninus.  Semiramide names Arsace her new husband and appoints him to be King of Babylon.  Arsace is unnerved by this, but then the ghost of King Ninus rises from the ground and tells Arsace that it is his destiny to rule.  But before he can do that, a victim must be sacrificed to avenge Ninus' murder.  No prizes for guessing who the victim turns out to be after all is said and done.  There is also the little subplot involving Indreno trying to woo a reluctant princess. 

The opera is rarely performed due to its intense vocal demands.  You need five virtuosos for the leading roles.  There are three arias for Semiramide in Act 1 alone!
    I could not find fault with the singers' performances.  However, compared some of Rossini's other works, this opera has very few notable stand-out moments.  Aside from Indreno's two arias, the moment that sticks out to me the most is the Act 2 duet between Semiramide and Arsace.  This scene is an absolutely gorgeous moment where two characters go through a whole range of emotions as they gradually understand who the other is. 
From the looks of Angela Meade's costumes, I think the same person who did the Met's most recent production of Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini did this production of Semiramide.  I say this because the color of her costume goes from royal purple and gold at the very beginning to light blue, then to red, and then to very dark purple at the end.  

The opera is one of those pieces where you go for the music and not the story.  Yeah, the story has some very good moments in it, but it takes a back seat to the music.  Now that doesn't mean I won't go see it again (in fact, I think I will), it just means that this opera doesn't have as much in it as Armida or La Cenerentola.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Writing Short Stories

How do you write a good detective story?  In particular, how do you handle a detective short story?  They're not going to be as long and complex as a full novel, so it's best to keep it simple.  
    You have to get the the solution in around ten to twelve pages.  This means no long and complicated backstories.  It also means that you have to set up the mystery fairly quickly, even if the murder happens halfway.  And the number of clues is reduced. 



A penguin walks into a bar.  "What will you have?", asks the bartender.  "Well," says the penguin, "I have to go through leopard seal territory several times a day, so I'll have a Canadian Club."

Sunday, December 31, 2017


Three teenagers are in Juvenile Court.  The judge asks the first boy what happened.  The boy replies, "All I did your Honor was break a window, steal a bike, and throw peanuts in the lake."  The second boy says, "All I did your Honor was break a window, steal a bike, and throw peanuts in the lake."  The third boy says, "And all I did your Honor was break a window and steal a bike."  "Did you throw peanuts in the lake?", asks the judge.  The boy replies, "I'm Peanuts."

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Remembering a Beloved Singer


He was not the one who introduced me to opera, but he was the one through whom I became enamored of the genre.  In February of 2007 my mother and I were coming home from the Tack Sale in Arlington, Wisconsin.  She decided to turn on the opera, and the broadcast that day was Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang the title role alongside soprano Renee Flemming as Tatyana.  It was the first time I had ever heard of a Russian opera, and the first time I'd heard of this baritone.  

I quickly became an avid fan of Dima and could not get enough of his suave seductive voice.  His white hair added to his appeal.  I started watching YouTube videos that featured his performances, and bought CDs and DVDs of  his pefromances

My first time seeing him live (sort of) was the Live in HD encore of Verdi's opera ErnaniHis performance of King Don Carlo was flawless.  His red brocade costume helped considerably.  A month later my sister and I saw him as M. Germont in the simulcasted performance on April 14th of La Traviata.  My sister does not like opera like I do, but she loved Dima's talent; she praised his breath control above everything else.
        I saw the simulcast of Un Ballo in Maschera twice (on the day and the encore).  I think Dima's performance of Renato Anckarström's Act 3 aria was the highlight of his performance there.  He communicated very well the grief of a betrayed husband who wonders why his wife would cheat on him with his best friend.  Although in that aria Renato  is more angry at his friend for breaking their bond of trust.  

And I always looked forward to hearing Dima over the radio.  My most favorite of all the radio broadcasts that the Met has ever done was the broadcast of Verdi's Don Carlo on my birthday in April of 2015.  Dima sang the role of Rodrigo in that performance.  Fun fact, he sang Rodrigo's Act 3 aria when he won at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 1989. 

I loved his performance in October of 2015 of the role of Count di Luna in Il Trovatore.  That had to be the best operatic performance I had ever seen him in ever.  By then he had been diagnosed with the brain tumor.  I think most of the Met audience knew of it as well, because they gave him a massive ovation the minute he first stepped out onto the stage.  At the curtain call, the orchestra showered him with white roses.

When I heard he would doing a recital at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, my mother and I got tickets to go see him.  Seeing him live on the stage as opposed to just in simulcasts was a very unique experience for me. To heard broadcasts, recordings, or watch videos of a performer you like so much is one thing.  To see them live live as opposed to recordings is another thing.  I will never forget Dima singing the Russian folk song"Farewell happiness".  It was just him singing without accompaniment into the auditorium.  The memory of it still gives me goosebumps to this day.  

Dmitri Hvorostovksy will always be my most favorite singer of all time.