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Opera through shared eyes

Opera through shared eyes

New Zealand Opera will be even more accessible when the curtain goes up for a fresh new production of La traviata this week. The national opera company is offering an Audio Description service for people who are blind or vision impaired. It will also be a tactile experience, with facility for people to literally “get a feel” for costumes and scenery.

Users will receive headphones which deliver a carefully-scripted voiceover that describes what is happening on stage. In Audio Description the voiceover is live, in order to match exactly what is taking place. Two specially-trained ‘describers’ sit in a booth with microphones, taking turns to narrate what is taking place on stage, in clear, vivid language.

“Our voiceovers are very discreet, we do not talk over the singing or detract from the music,” says Nicola Owen, one of the describers. Nicola works for Auckland Live, which developed the service as part of its arts accessibility programme for patrons who are hearing or vision impaired.

Nicola and the second describer for La traviata, Edward Newborn, will develop their script by attending several rehearsals. The final version will go through a dry run using ‘test patrons’ both blind and sighted, who will provide feedback.

People who request the free service also get a chance to book a guided pre-performance ‘touch tour’ of the set. “This gives them a real sense of where the furniture is and pace the stage to work out the layout. They can also feel the costumes and the lavish material,” explains Nicola.

Arts Access Aotearoa is one of several organisations to applaud the innovation. Executive Director Richard Benge says: “Blind patrons who already love the music will have the opportunity to understand what others are seeing on stage – it’s about being able to enjoy the whole event.”

NZ Opera engages with a range of different communities to broaden the enjoyment and appeal of opera to an increasingly diverse audience. Its work with young people have seen it establish a dedicated Education Department.

NZO also uses surtitles - illuminated text appearing above the stage in sync with the performance to translate the singers’ words (which in La traviata are sung in Italian).

The audio description service was previously offered and taken up for productions of The Bartered Bride and Madame Butterfly.


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