Three Tenore di Grazia

Inspired by the quiz during last Saturday’s Met b’cast, here is a quick hit of “tenore di Grazia,” that is, graceful tenors, not the heroic breed required for Wagner or heavy Verdi, but the elegant perfectly controlled sound that makes bel canto music shine.  (Tenors of any kind are a rare breed, and a true tenor di grazia is a particular treasure.) Javier Camerana, one of the current ideals of this type, named three of his favorites during his quiz appearance. Here’s a sampling of all three:

The German tenor Fritz Wunderich, golden sound, perfect production with evenness of tone across the whole range, and attentive to the words.  Here in a deceptive simple Handel aria. If you don’t have a feel for cantilena, the long singing line, this number falls flat.

Talk about a long line, and not one moment of vocal pressure!

Next, the great Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus, spectacular range, sensitivity to text and ability to inflect it to a ‘part per million’ and the fearlessness required to sing softly when the piece calls for it. (Harder than singing loud for most opera singers, and why “can belto” is so frequently applicable in the opera house, or these days in Broadway musicals.) Here he is in Roméo’s aria from Gounod’s Roméo & Juliette, a role he owned during his very long career.

Finally, a tenor from an earlier generation also beloved by Javier and many others, Cesare Valletti. Here he is in an aria from Massenet’s Werther, exhibiting an almost superhuman poise, while singing in the highest range of voice. You hear the heartsick obsession of the young man, it seems to pour out of him in a single breath. And this was live on the radio!

Finally, for good measure, here is Javier himself, who set me off on this enjoyable visit to tenore di grazia of yesteryear. An excerpt from  his performances in Rossini’s Semiramide currently at the Met (live March 10 on the radio).

Wonderful line, agile, warm sound, with a smile in his voice. Love to that in the great tenor tradition, has to stand on a box to sing his high note so as not to be shorter than his love interest. (Tenors, dear reader, on the whole are shorter than those they woo. It’s just how it goes. I know whereof I speak.)

Happy Wednesday!





Web Production Tips, Redux

A while back, I got asked for tips on Web production, a little random but offered what it’s worth. Slightly updated from an earlier post, 2/20/2018. Feel free to share with those in the web game.

Random Website Production Tips courtesy of Arthur Smith

  • Sign your work: I’ve found it useful to make sure people put their names (or at least initials) on all concept stage and later docs (specs, treatments, mission statements, wireframes, page designs, whatever). I used to only ask for dates, but “signing your work” may actually improve quality and it is also a godsend later when you are trying to track something down from an archive.
  • Number wireframes: Decimal numbering navigation trees on wireframes/screen comps has been helpful. (That is, assigning a number to each path (Home page =1, a sub-page like “about us” = 1.1 etc.) although as complicated hierarchies become less prevalent on sites, may not be as important.
  • Responsive from the get go: Checking responsive view compatibility really early and being psychologically prepared to clip the wings of a really nice design solution and content strategy if it’s not feasible.
  • Workflow realism: Be prepared for clients’ (or partners) non-use of proposed workflow tools for content, delivery and review etc. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, you can lead a client to BaseCamp, Google Drive, DropBox, SharePoint or whatever, but you can’t make them click. Most people are reluctant to add another tool to their work ecosystem, and a vendor seldom has the leverage to persuade them to do so. I ask how clients already work with copy, visual assets, and do review for existing projects, and then work out an approach based on that that’s bearable for the web team. It is often email attachments, the bane of any web producer, but then I put them in the tool I need and name them using the production convention. I work on small sites, and I realize something this ad hoc may not scale.
  • Milestones: Rally around a fixed external event to shape client schedules and expectations (even if it’s a sort of made up event). It’s best if there is a plausible date to tie production milestones to, but even if not, designate one based on something on the calendar. For instance, end of a semester for an academic client, annual meeting for a non-profit, etc. Some public version of a deliverable should be tied to this., “e.g., we will focus group the alpha at the next regional meeting.” What’s key is that be such a date be front of mind for client and feasible for you. End of contract dates don’t necessarily work this way. For one thing, they can be amended, but dates of public meetings cannot. If you have to keep looking up a date to see when something major is due, it’s a bad sign.
  • Presentation tools for sketches: Consider Keynote, (or if you must, PowerPoint ) for concept and design stage work. If your designers are comfortable with it and particularly if you are working from a family of templates, have designers create plausible Keynote “page shells” that then can be updated by producers and writers to iterate content strategy. This is sort of a hack, and it’s not what Keynote is for, per se, but it is much more convenient (and less costly) that working on content revisions in a designer/Photoshop workflow. For one thing, text in Keynote is much easier to move around and chunk, and the graphics tools are sufficient at least to wireframe, or even do simple page design. Photoshop (or other image tools, are not text friendly). Don’t leave the designer and developer out of this phase, though. It’s possible to create something in Keynote that is insane to execute. Periodic check ins on feasibility and implications are good, as is working from a shell that both the designer and developer have seen and ok’d, or better participated in.
  • Start early on copy and other content: Also, if you are careful, you can get a jump on cleaning up the copy, and sort out images, rights etc., in this Keynote stage, not just resolve the content strategy problems. Interestingly enough, now that I work mostly in WordPress, I still find that this Keynote workflow helps. WordPress sort of tempts you to think you can do iterative content development if you have chosen the right theme etc. This hasn’t worked for me: it’s a publishing content management approach (presentation and content wrangling) it’s not a content creation tool, at least for anything editorially intensive. I think there still really isn’t a good content creation tool—a sort of github for editorial would be part of it, but some 10 year old is probably creating one. I know people have had success with iA Writer, and Medium is making a big splash, although I’m not sure that it is designed to work inside other workflows.
  • Map editorial workflows: figure out in advance how copy (and other assets) are getting from the client or the writer to the site, and how revisions, proofreading/copyediting and publishing will be done. Note who’s job it is, and do a ‘pre-flight’ to make sure this approach will work. Particularly important for big sites or conversion jobs.
  • Restrain your theme addiction: If you are in a WordPress world, or other theme-based platform, don’t move to the theme choice stage until content strategy is established. (This is really hard for me, and others I’m betting. There are so many themes, and it’s fun to think in a preliminary way about your project and then go “theme shopping”.) The danger is you start thinking about the project in terms of what the theme will do, rather than what the project goals are. (It’s a version of having all those typefaces available in a design program: sort of irresistible to try them out early on.) It’s also a waste of time learning a theme and its quirks, only to find out you won’t use it later. (Although this only happens once in my experience!) If you are building a theme from scratch, or redoing most or all of the CSS, then this would not necessarily apply. Still good to have a clear idea of what success looks like for your content first.
  • Stay in touch: Do a weekly report email to clients, include milestones from your project spreadsheet or PM tool, and color code tasks: on time (green), behind, (red) ahead (blue), not started (black), so it can be glanced at (but not edited).
  • Keep track: Document as you go. (Like flossing easy to say, hard to do).
  • If timelines change, be realistic: If some stage takes a lot more time than it was scheduled and budgeted for, the natural tendency is to believe the “Just So story” that you will “catch up” later. If the first stage took twice as long, it’s likely that the other stages will take twice as long. Make an alternate Plan-B version of the schedule that uses this delay as a factor for all remaining stages. For example, if it took the client 10 weeks instead of 5 to provide copy and signoff on concept spec, multiply all remaining stages (page designs, alpha, testing, whatever) by 2 and see where that gets you. Figure out how you could manage such a schedule, and find a professional and respectful way to address this with your client. This isn’t very comfortable, but even if you are just thinking through it yourself is useful. As difficult as it may be to bring up a delay like this with a client, it is easier than trying miraculously do work in half the time. Even if you end up eating the time, your client and team may well respect you for being realistic about it.
Web site don'ts: Labeling everything in dingbats!
Web production don’ts: Labeling everything in dingbats on your sitemap!

• Love your content: Finally, it’s my experience that if you like the content and do right by it, many workflow problems either don’t occur or are easier to solve. Even neutral professional content that isn’t your particular specialty can be rewarding to work on, and if everybody believes it is valuable to get it out to the people who need it, that gives you some basis for working together and solving problems when they come up.  On the other hand, content that hasn’t been worked out pushes back, and chokes workflows.

Tech Talk: How Computers Work

Tipped by Neverending Search, I’ve been looking at a course (aimed at kids I think) on How Computers Work.  First full episode here (I would skip the content-free intro by one Bill Gates).

They are fun, if a tad heavy hyperactive in the video editing. Useful whether new info, checking what you know, or in teaching and learning contexts. It’s from the people.

Brendel’s Haydn

One of the many benighted opinions of my youth was a certain disdain for Franz Josef Haydn.  Somehow I bought into a line of thinking that Haydn was the epigone of Mozart (just as Dvorak was the epigone of Brahms), with the result that their glories were overlooked.  Now I couldn’t live without either one of them.

Part of that is because of Alfred Brendel’s (and others’) advocacy of the piano sonatas. Here he is in a favorite.

The conductor Christopher Hogwood had a nice line about Mozart versus Haydn in a radio interview I heard years ago. To CH, Mozart was like a great master chef, whose mysterious ways were hidden in a kitchen you could not see, you received these fantastic meals of impossible polish and technique and couldn’t figure out how such a thing could have been devised. Haydn let it all hang out, he cut up the ingredients right at the table, and cooked all the food in front of you–no cosmic mystery, it’s all right there, and you listen along as he has his, often humorous way, with everything–you included.

The result, delightful, moving, and well crafted, is deeply satisfying and soul enriching to listen to.

Shakespeare Everyday

Nosing around the web for online Shakespeare resources (full report later), found this nice list of everyday terms that are “quoting Shakespeare.”

“All our yesterdays”— (Macbeth)

“As good luck would have it” — (The Merry Wives of Windsor)

“As merry as the day is long” — (Much Ado About Nothing / King John)

“Bated breath” — (The Merchant of Venice)

“Be-all and the end-all” — (Macbeth)

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” — (Hamlet)

“Brave new world” — (The Tempest)

“Break the ice” — (The Taming of the Shrew)

“Brevity is the soul of wit” — (Hamlet)

“Refuse to budge an inch” — (Measure for Measure / The Taming of the Shrew)

“Cold comfort” — (The Taming of the Shrew / King John)

633px-First-page-first-folio-measure-for-measure“Conscience does make cowards of us all” — (Hamlet)

“Crack of doom” — (Macbeth)

“Dead as a doornail” — (Henry VI Part II)

“A dish fit for the gods” — (Julius Caesar)

“Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” — (Julius Caesar)

“Devil incarnate” — (Titus Andronicus / Henry V)

“Eaten me out of house and home” — (Henry IV Part II)

“Faint hearted” — (Henry VI Part I)

“Fancy-free” — (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

“Forever and a day” — (As You Like It)

“For goodness’ sake” — (Henry VIII)

“Foregone conclusion” — (Othello)

“Full circle” — (King Lear)

“The game is afoot” — (Henry IV Part I)

“Give the devil his due” — (Henry IV Part I)

“Good riddance” — (Troilus and Cressida)

“Jealousy is the green-eyed monster” — (Othello)

“Heart of gold” — (Henry V)

“Hoist with his own petard” — (Hamlet)

“Ill wind which blows no man to good” — (Henry IV Part II)

“In my heart of hearts” — (Hamlet)

“In my mind’s eye” — (Hamlet)

“Kill with kindness” — (The Taming of the Shrew)

“Knock knock! Who’s there?” — (Macbeth)

“Laughing stock” — (The Merry Wives of Windsor)

“Live long day” — (Julius Caesar)

“Love is blind” — (The Merchant of Venice)

“Milk of human kindness” — (Macbeth)

“More sinned against than sinning” — (King Lear)

“One fell swoop” — (Macbeth)

“Play fast and loose” — (King John)

“Set my teeth on edge” — (Henry IV Part I)

“Wear my heart upon my sleeve” — (Othello)

“Wild-goose chase” — (Romeo and Juliet)


And some nice bits on Shakespeare’s Sonnets–ever surprising works–from a recent TLS.

Writers as well as readers have found the sonnets irresistible – not only because of their quasi-autobiographical subject material, but also because of their raw exploration of why anyone would bother to write at all. These poems have indeed enjoyed extraordinarily complex and rich afterlives. Jonathan Post’s chapter on “regifting” the sonnets attends to new work by British and American poets including Jen Bervin, Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, Elizabeth Bishop and Allen Ginsberg. The boorish speaker of Wendy Cope’s “Strugnell’s Sonnets”, in Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, keeps twisting Shakespeare’s opening lines: “The expense of spirits is a crying shame”. In an altogether different register, the American poet Alice Fulton’s collection Barely Composed contains a poem which scrambles a series of prefixes, suffixes and homonyms from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 87. As Post puts it, “how strange and barely recognisable, yet so it is”. The title of Fulton’s poem, “Peroral”, refers to the practice of taking a dose of medicine by the mouth – and this suggests, to Fulton and perhaps to Post, a new way of doing creative justice to poetry from the distant past. Reading the sonnets is no longer simply therapeutic, as if influence were a form of influenza. It seems more purposeful to work collaboratively (instead of competitively) with these poems in order to create bright new redactions

Picture Thursday: Hawaii Snapshots

Souvenirs of a trip to Hawaii around this time last year. Was not on my bucket list–was just a convenient work add on, but turned out to be pretty amazing.

That interior is the Bishop Museum, strongly recommended if you find yourself in Honolulu. And of course my informal (and unattainable) quest to visit every public library in America continued.

Commonplace book: Alan Lightman’s Valentine’s Words

Writer and physicist Alan Lightman’s take on what might be termed love at first sight.


by Alan Lightman

Bubble chamber event, aka love?

It is a Saturday in March. The man wakes up slowly, reaches over and feels the windowpane, and decides it is warm enough to skip his thermal underwear. He yawns and dresses and goes out for his morning jog. When he comes back, he showers, cooks himself a scrambled egg, and settles down on the sofa with The Essays of E. B. White. Around noon, he rides his bike to the bookstore. He spends a couple of hours there, just poking around the books. Then he pedals back through the little town, past his house, and to the lake.

When the woman woke up this morning, she got out of bed and went immediately to her easel, where she picked up her pastels and set to work on her painting. After an hour, she is satisfied with the light effect and quits to have breakfast. She dresses quickly and walks to a nearby store to buy shutters for her bathroom. At the store, she meets friends and has lunch with them. Afterward, she wants to be alone and drives to the lake.

Now, the man and the woman stand on the wooden dock, gazing at the lake and the waves on the water. They haven’t noticed each other.

The man turns. And so begins the sequence of events informing him of her. Light reflected from her body instantly enters the pupils of his eyes, at the rate of ten trillion particles of light per second. Once through the pupil of each eye, the light travels through an oval-shaped lens, then through a transparent, jellylike substance filling up the eyeball, and lands on the retina. Here it is gathered by one hundred million rod and cone cells.

Cells in the path of the reflected highlights receive a great deal of light; cells falling in the shadows of the reflected scene receive very little. The woman’s lips, for example, are just now glistening in the sunlight, reflecting light of high intensity onto a tiny patch of cells slightly northeast of back center of the man’s retina. The edges around her mouth, on the other hand, are rather dark, so that cells neighboring the northeast path receive much less light.

Each particle of light ends its journey in the eye upon meeting a retinene molecule, consisting of 20 carbon atoms, 28 hydrogen atoms, and 1 oxygen atom. In its dormant condition, each retinene molecule is attached to a protein molecule and has a twist between the eleventh and fifteenth carbon atoms. But when light strikes it, as is now happening in about 30,000 trillion retinene molecules every second, the molecule straightens out and separates from its protein. After several intermediate steps, it wraps into a twist again, awaiting arrival of a new particle of light. Far less than a thousandth of a second has elapsed since the man saw the woman.

Triggered by the dance of the retinene molecules, the nerve cells, or neurons, respond. First in the eye and then in the brain. One neuron, for instance, has just gone into action. Protein molecules on its surface suddenly change their shape, blocking the flow of positively charged sodium atoms from the surrounding body fluid. This change in flow of electrically charged atoms produces a change in voltage that shudders through the cell. After a distance of a fraction of an inch, the electrical signal reaches the end of the neuron, altering the release of specific molecules, which migrate a distance of a hundred-thousandth of an inch until they reach the next neuron, passing along the news.

The woman, in fact, holds her hands by her sides and tilts her head at an angle of five and a half degrees. Her hair falls just to her shoulders. This information and much, much more is exactingly encoded by the electrical pulses in the various neurons of the man’s eyes.

In another few thousandths of a second, the electrical signals reach the ganglion neurons, which bunch together in the optic nerve at the back of the eye and carry their data to the brain. Here, the impulses race to the primary visual cortex, a highly folded layer of tissue about a tenth of an inch thick and two square inches in area, containing one hundred million neurons in half a dozen layers. The fourth layer receives the input first, does a preliminary analysis, and transfers the information to neurons in other layers. At every stage, each neuron may receive signals from a thousand other neurons, combine the signals – some of which cancel each other out – and dispatch the computed result to a thousand-odd other neurons.

After about thirty seconds – after several hundred trillion particles of reflected light have entered the man’s eyes and been processed – the woman says hello. Immediately, molecules of air are pushed together, then apart, then together, beginning in her vocal cords and traveling in a spring like motion to the man’s ears. The sound makes the trip from her to him (twenty feet) in a fiftieth of a second.

Within each of his ears, the vibrating air quickly covers the distance to the eardrum. The eardrum, an oval membrane about .3 inch in diameter and tilted fifty-five degrees from the floor of the auditory canal, itself begins trembling and transmits its motion to three tiny bones. From there, the vibrations shake the fluid in the cochlea, which spirals snail-like two and a half turns around.

Inside the cochlea the tones are deciphered. Here, a very thin membrane undulates in step with the sloshing fluid, and through this basilar membrane run tiny filaments of varying thickness, like strings on a harp. The woman’s voice, from afar, is playing this harp. Her hello begins in a low registers and rises in pitch toward the end. In precise response, the thick filaments in the basilar membrane vibrate first, followed by the thinner ones. Finally, tens of thousands of rod-shaped bodies perched on the basilar membrane convey their particular quiverings to the auditory nerve.

News of the woman’s hello, in electrical form, races along the neurons of the auditory nerve and enters the man’s brain, through the thalamus, to a specialized region of the cerebral cortex for further processing. Eventually, a large fraction of the trillion neurons in the man’s brain become involved with computing the visual and auditory data just acquired. Sodium and potassium gates open and close. Electrical currents speed along neuron fibers. Molecules flow from one nerve ending to the next.

All of this is known. What is not known is why, after about a minute, the man walks over to the woman and smiles.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Just enough notes: Piotr Anderszewski

Of great pianists there never seems to be any end. One of my favorite of the current roster is Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski, restrained and poetic whether in Chopin or Szymanowski.

He has just released the second in a series of Mozart Concerti recording. Tipped off by a rave in Gramophone, I listened to trailer on YouTube and even these little bits enchant.

And here are two movements from Bach’s French Suite #5, from a 2000 performance in Miami (probably one that wouldn’t meet his current standards, if he doesn’t like his performance he gets the urge to walk out–and sometimes does).


He’s recorded this entire Bach Suite, with magical results, and also is the focus of an interesting documentary by Bruno Monsaingeon. Only the trailer is on YouTube, but if you have a public library card, you may be able to find it on their site.

For pianophiles, really somebody to treasure.

Poetic Words: Rita Dove

One of many wonderful poems inspired by Lady Day.

By Rita Dove

for Michael S. Harper

Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.

(Now you’re cooking, drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)

Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.

If you can’t be free, be a mystery.