The Shoe That Never Dropped: One Reason You Don’t Go to Opera


By Julie Wu

“You’re rebuffing Jaquino now, but eventually you’ll get together,” the conductor told me.  “I mean, we assume so.”

We stood at a grand piano overlooking a breathtaking vista of Manhattan to rehearse the opening duet of Beethoven’s only opera, the rarely performed Fidelio.  The next day, we would be doing our informal, private run-through with full cast, orchestra, and chorus.  The conductor, pianist, and the tenor playing Jaquino are all pros, while I am a former wannabe who gets into shape once every year or two especially to sing with this group, affectionately termed the Occasional Opera Society.   I read the libretto, I admit, on the bus from Boston.

The opera is set in a political prison.  Marzelline, daughter of the prison warden, fondly rejects Jaquino’s advances because she is in love with the heroic new prison worker, Fidelio. Marzelline does not realize that Fidelio is actually a woman named Leonore who has disguised herself to save her imprisoned husband.  The bulk of Act I in this two-Act opera displays this complicated situation, and describes the upcoming wedding between the supposedly love-lorn Marzelline and Fidelio.

By the end of Act II, Leonore not only blows her cover and throws herself in front of a dagger to save her husband’s life, but also indirectly gets all the other prisoners sprung loose. Soloists, chorus, and orchestra join together in a rousing celebration of Leonore’s  wifely devotion.  As for Marzelline, she is allotted two-and-a-half measures to react to the news that the love of her life is actually a married, cross-dressing woman:  “O weh’ mir!  Was vernimmt mein Ohr!”  And then she happily joins in with the chorus of praise for wifely devotion.  Joining the chorus as well is Jaquino, at this point apparently devoid of any personal opinion.

“This should get resolved,” I insisted at the rehearsal.  “They need to get together in the end.” [Read more...]

All Hail Snow White: A Heroine on a Hero’s Journey

By Julie Wu

You look very fetching in mail.

The Huntsman to Snow White


I recently took a roundtrip flight directly from JFK toTaipei.  That’s 15 hours each way, enough time in one seat to induce post-traumatic stress disorder in most people.  But I am not most people.   I am a mother of small children, and on this flight I had my own TV screen with my own menu of movies and my own remote.  This privilege was, by itself, almost worth the cost of the flight.

I watched Snow White and the Huntsman, The King’s Speech, and Inception.  I recognized that of the three, Snow White was not technically the best.  But it was the only one I watched both to and from Taipei in entirety because, actually, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.  (I did watch the opening of Inception two or three times just to figure out what the heck happened.)

What was it about Snow White that captured me?   Was it the gorgeous, fantastical visuals?  Well, they were dazzling, though I could have done without the androgynous fairies, the cute little bunnies, and the computer-compiled dwarves who deprived eight real height-challenged actors of a life-changing opportunity.  Was it the love story?  I very much enjoyed the twist in this, too, and the fact that this movie’s definition of true love required something deeper than the usual physical infatuation that is so sadly prevalent in movies, fairy tales and yes, novels, too.

What really got me though, I think, was that Snow White is a great heroine.  She’s everything I wished my heroines were when I was growing up.  Yes, she’s beautiful, but she doesn’t seem to [Read more...]

Filling in the blanks: When a Society Acquires Freedom of Speech


By Julie Wu

Tonight, I will be flying to Taiwan.  A pluralistic democracy, Taiwan has freedom of speech and a free press.  To Americans, these descriptors sound ho hum, but in the context of Taiwanese history, they are a miracle.

In my parents’ suburban Boston home, we had a 1971 World Book Encyclopedia that was printed in Taiwan.  Though it was in English, it had a fundamental difference from the 1971 World Book at my school library: it was censored.  In our Taiwanese edition, Chinese history ended in 1949.  The pages where Mao was supposed to be were blank, both in the China section and in the M volume, and the Communists never won China.  In fact, Communism, along with the border between Mongolia and China, simply did not exist.

Our World Book was printed during the White Terror in Taiwan, a forty year period (1949-1987) under the Nationalist Chinese government during which saying the wrong thing or even just owning the wrong book could result in arrest, torture, imprisonment, and even execution.  It has taken decades for me to find out what really happened during that time—I’m still learning, as are many Westerners and even many Taiwanese.  But because of that World Book, I never doubted for a moment the repressive nature of the regime at that time. [Read more...]

Window or Mirror: How Did My Reading Scope Get So Narrow?


By Julie Wu

I once visited a woman whose bookshelves—all of them—were filled with Harlequin romances of a certain series.  Each spine was identical to the next, except for the title.  She had, as far as I could see, no other books.  She held a half-read identical book in her hand as she conversed.  It was extraordinary.

But who am I to judge?  The woman had found what she liked and was content to stick with it.  And, come to think of it, just how adventurous a reader am I?  I do read more than one imprint, but in a library or bookstore I make a beeline for “General fiction,” or “Literature” and breeze right by aisles upon aisles of mysteries, thrillers, romances, fantasies, biographies, social science, history, essays, and poetry.  Sometimes I catch myself and backtrack to those sections and wonder, what in the world has happened to me? [Read more...]

A Girl’s Love for Batman: The Possible Cost of Segregating Stories by Gender

By Julie Wu

Yesterday, my four-year-old daughter got Batman sneakers.  They go nicely with her Batman shirt, Batman socks, and (temporary) Batman tattoo.  She has a Batman costume and wants a Batman backpack.  She watches Batman shows and I read her Batman books.

My daughter’s Batman craze makes some people uncomfortable.  She is, according to the Zeitgeist, supposed to like Belle and Ariel.  Or, if she is going to like superheroes, Batgirl or Wonder Woman.

But here’s why I don’t mind my daughter’s obsession: Batman is a great character.  He has a tragic past and is driven by both tremendous anger and guilt in his quest to stop crime, yet he is not vindictive.  His only superpowers are will, ingenuity, and brute force.  In groups of superheroes, he is the one who leads, not Wonder Woman or even the ridiculously superpowered characters like Superman and Green Lantern, whom my kids deride as being “cheap.”  (Your only vulnerability is Kryptonite?  You can make anything you want out of your ring?  Come on.)

In contrast, who is Batgirl?  She is admirably brave but weak, second string even to Robin, who is himself secondary (interestingly, there are Robin costumes commercially available for girls and women).  And the only thing that strikes me about Wonder Woman is her corset and go-go boots.  The woman has no personality.  As for Belle and Ariel, not to mention all those princesses, am I really supposed to try to get my child to drop a great hero like Batman to worship a pretty, pleasantly spunky girl whose life’s drive is fulfilled by a handsome guy and a drop-dead dress?

[Read more...]