La Bohème at the Galaxy

La Boheme
Starving bohemian artists living in drafty Paris attics in the mid-19th century, struggling to produce their art, falling in and out of love, sharing and suffering, living and dying, all done while singing. That’s La Bohème in a nutshell.

I am embarrassed, even ashamed to admit I’ve never been to the opera. Not to a live performance that is. For someone who has long enjoyed opera as music, and has a fair collection of opera on CD, that’s inexcusable.*

I’ve seen a few of the “big” operas on video – I had Madame Butterfly on VHS and still have Boris Godunov and Tosca on DVD and I’ve had a few others (including operetta) – but before this weekend, I had only seen Bergman’s 1975 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at a theatre. And that was back when it was current. That’s going to change.

This weekend we went to the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of La Bohème at the local Galaxy theatre. And all I can say is wow. Three and a half hours that passed by like 10 minutes. The music, the sets, the voices… wow. Why hadn’t I done this sooner?

The sheer power of the presentation on the big screen is hard to describe. There’s a closeness that being at a live performance can’t provide. The cameras capture the actors in an intimate way that someone in the nosebleed seats (the kind I could afford) cannot see. Plus the intermissions provide a behind-the-curtain look at how the sets are constructed and moved into place, at how the backdrops are furled and unfurled, at how many people are involved in the performance who you never see on stage. In the theatrical version you have a sort of third-person-deity seat to see the performance unfold.

I have at least three versions of La Bohème on CD, and its major arias on several opera collection albums. I’ve heard it dozens of times. But it never moved me like this.

Wow. Just wow.

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Reading as a forgotten art

ReadingEarlier this month (February, 2018), the Globe & Mail published an essay by author Michael Harris titled, “I have forgotten how to read.” In it, he recounted how he recently tried to read a single chapter of a book, but failed. Frustrated, instead turned to TV:

Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.

Which, I think, is the poor choice of alternatives. Giving up doesn’t improve the skill set or fix the problem. As the American politician Claude Pepper is alleged to have said, “Life is like riding a bicycle: you don’t fall off unless you stop pedaling.” Harris, it seems, stopped pedalling before he was even through a mere chapter.

If, as Harris also writes, “mind is plastic,” and he believes his reading skills have diminished, then I would think the solution would be to retrain his mind, to relearn those skills, to strengthen the neural pathways associated with reading and comprehension, rather than continue to encourage them to atrophy. Get back on the bike and pedal harder. Read more, not less. As Groucho Marx quipped: *

I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a good book.

Harris hadn’t become illiterate or dyslexic: his reading habits had changed as he immersed himself deeper into today’s social-media-driven technology; a medium that encourages short, emotion-filled, reactive – even knee-jerk – content, the stuff of immediate response, outburst and instant memes, rather than the stuff of deep thought. It’s a self-inflicted wound:

When we become cynical readers – when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages – we stop exercising our attention. We stop reading with a sense of faith that some larger purpose may be served. This doesn’t mean we’re reading less – not at all. In fact, we live in a text-gorged society in which the most fleeting thought is a thumb-dash away from posterity. What’s at stake is not whether we read. It’s how we read… The words I write now filter through a new set of criteria. Do they grab; do they anger? Can this be read without care? Are the sentences brief enough? And the thoughts? It’s tempting to let myself become so cynical a writer because I’m already such a cynical reader.

I think the many of us who share part of our lives online and are in constant communication with the social media world through devices understand. Even a passing attempt to keep up with the sheer volume of material on a Facebook timeline or Twitter feed runs in opposition to depth and focus. It becomes the Red Queen’s Race – you run as fast as you can in order to simply stay in the same place. But surrendering to it isn’t the answer.
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The strange life of Bobby Fischer

Bobby FischerForty five years ago this month, a momentous event took place in Iceland that shook the world. After 21 games spread over almost two months, the eccentric American chess master, Bobby Fischer, ended 24 years of Soviet dominance in chess after beating Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky. It shook the world at the apex of the Cold War. I watched it unfold, a memory I will always  carry.

Many years later, former Russian grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, commented,

…in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. That’s why the Spassky defeat […] was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War.

Back in those days, I played chess with more enthusiasm, skill and grace than I can muster today. Bobby Fischer was one of my early chess idols whose games I followed (I still have books of his games on my shelves). I remember very clearly that year when he was playing Boris Spassky in Iceland. 

I was working in a bookstore in Toronto back then, in that summer of 1972. Every day after a game had been played, I would go out at lunch and get a newspaper. With my chess-playing co-workers, we would go over the match move by move. Try variants, explore alternatives, discuss the results. And look in awe at what masterpieces he wrought on the chessboard.

It wasn’t just the game or the skill of the moves that fascinated me (not all of those games are great, I admit). It was the sudden appearance of chess in the forefront of Cold War geopolitics and the larger implications of the match on the world stage. If you didn’t live through the era, it’s hard to explain how the Cold War affected international and domestic politics, or how a chess match could be the fulcrum of boisterous nationalism on both sides of the divide.

But in the summer of 1972, chess was newsworthy, gaining front page status, and time on the evening TV broadcasts. Chess was cool, chess was sexy, chess was in – not just for me, but for all of pop culture. Chess sets sold faster than they could be stocked. And 29-year-old Bobby Fischer was its golden boy. 

Last week, I started reading Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady. It is the most comprehensive biography of Fischer yet and reminds me somewhat of Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs: both subjects were troubled, difficult but brilliant men. Both ran off the rails, but Jobs always managed to get back. Fischer never did. It’s a heart-rending, troubling, but fascinating story.

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PE5: Corel’s Wrong Direction

Way back in 1990, a program called Fractal Painter was published by Fractal Design. It offered a “natural media” approach to digital art: mimicking real world art tools and media in the digital environment. You could  – if you had more artistic skills than I – make an image onscreen that looked like it was a photo of a real-media image. Images had texture, oils had highlights. You could mix colours like you do in real life.

It was brilliant, exciting and ground-breaking stuff.

In 1997, after gobbling up several other products (including Poser 3D), the company became Metacreations, but it and extended itself a little too far, and split into fragments that were individually acquired by Microsoft and Corel.*

Corel continued to publish – and enhance – Painter. It turned Painter into the foremost “natural media” digital art program on the market. Its latest incarnation is Painter 2016, a remarkable and powerful art program that sells for $500.

The price, however, deterred many users who wanted a simple art program for non-commercial uses or to just make art-like variations of their digital photographs. So Corel developed Painter Essentials,  at a modest (under $50) price. PE was, essentially, Painter-light, offering a stripped-down subset of Painter tools.

The big draw in Painter Essentials (PE) was its auto-paint feature. It automated the brush and pen strokes. With a few clicks, users could turn a digital image (a photograph, for example) into an art-like rendition. Oil, charcoal, pencil, watercolour, impressionist, modern, pen-and-ink… just a few easy clicks to create an art-like image. Even watching the process work was mesmerizing.

Want a photo to look like a charcoal sketch? A watercolour? A Cezanne or Van Gogh painting? PE 4 had those options. But better yet, it had options to control the brush size, colours, canvas, stroke frequency and so on in each category. That meant users could personalize images in many ways previously unavailable except at much higher cost.

People loved PE. It filled a need for creating beautiful art without the effort, time or cost of Painter, but without the talent required to use all those tools. It offered enough control to make each resulting image unique and give users a feeling they had accomplished something other than just clicking.

It had many powerful tools and features – Painter’s brushes – to make it more than a toy.

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CRAP Design

The Non-Designer's Design BookCRAP: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. An unfortunate acronym from the four basic principles of graphic design first expounded in Robin Williams’ delightful little book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book. It’s now in its fourth edition, adding 24 pages since the last edition, almost 50 since the 2nd and more than 100 since the first).

Of all my books on graphic design, this has been my favourite for several years, ever since I bought the first edition in the late 1990s. It condenses so much information, so many ideas, so many nuances into clear, understandable principles.

Plus, it’s well-illustrated, with many visual examples of good and bad design.

Every chapter and many sections offer some quiz, test, or challenge for readers to work on. None of which are terribly difficult and some of which are subjective, so there’s no right or wrong answer. But it’s a good exercise because sometimes the answers reveal things we missed in our initial exploration.

Since Williams came up with the CRAP list, it has been expanded and enhanced by others online. The principles have been included in courses, infographics and videos, too. They apply not only to printed publications, but digital ones as well, as this site shows.  You can find many more online, and I recommend you do so. But go back to the original to see how and where it started.

Other principles are often expounded on by subsequent authors: whitespace, balance, flow, scale, focal point, hierarchy, unity, movement, variety, emphasis, gradation, proportion and grouping for example – but you can tackle these once you’re understood the essence of CRAP.

I can recommend this book to everyone who does any sort of design, from PowerPoint slides to rack cards to brochures and even town newsletters. If you aren’t a graphic designer – and I am not – then it will give you the basics to help understand what design is all about. If you are, it’s a good reminder of the core principles.

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