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Audio Describers Bring San Diego Opera to the Visually Impaired

March 6, 2015 3:59 a.m.

San Diego Opera provides an underutilized service called audio description. It allows the visually impaired to enjoy an opera performance more fully. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando explains what goes into providing this service.

Related Story: Audio Describers Bring San Diego Opera To Visually Impaired


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ANCHOR INTRO: San Diego Opera provides an underutilized service called audio description. It allows the visually impaired to enjoy an opera performance more fully. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando explains what goes into providing this service.

If you go to the opera and all you get is this…

CLIP aria being sung

Then you’re not getting the whole picture. You have no supertitles to translate the libretto, no sets to let you know where the action is taking place, and no costumes to convey the time period.

BOB KANISH: Opera isn’t just music and singing, it’s a full play slash performance that is set to music and singing.

Bob Kanish has been blind since birth. When he first began attending opera he says he simply wasn’t as engaged as the sighted audience.

BOB KANISH: So what I wasn’t able to do was I wasn’t able to follow along with what was happening. I knew the synopsis but I didn’t know what part I was in now, what’s going on now. Ok everybody in the audience just laughed, why are they laughing.

That’s where Kay O’Neil comes in.

KAY O’NEIL: [audio describing for the opera] The sets have been moved to form two buildings…

KAY O’NEIL: I do audio describing. And no one ever really knows what that is. We describe what goes on in the opera for people who can’t see it.

BOB KANISH: If you do not have your sight and you enjoy what an opera can offer to you, you’ll be amazed at how much more the description fills in and allows you to enjoy the experience.

That’s true in part because O’Neil and her colleagues are passionate about what they are doing.

KAY Look at the curtains, aren’t they marvelous, how would we describe them

For La Boheme, O’Neil got an up close look at the set so she could describe it better and make sure she conveyed how the look of the set colored the production.

KAY O’NEIL: All that grayness just gives you a cold feeling.

The audio describers begin their work at the first rehearsal where they pick up a script of the supertitles and begin taking notes about the production. O’Neil says her goal is to provide patrons with as much information as she can fit in between the measures.

KAY O’NEIL: We try to give them as much of what is happening that they would see, you use your words very, very carefully and very clearly and judiciously so they get as much as they can.

BOB KANISH: The challenge for them is to read enough of the dialogue and describe enough of the action so that you can be engaged in the parts of the opera that you can’t gain auditorially but while sill allowing you to hear all this beautiful singing and music that’s going on.

KAY O’NEIL: (describes another scene)

As a former opera singer, O’Neil understands this and she volunteers as an audio describer to bring opera to life in a new way. Kanish appreciates the enthusiasm of O’Neil and the other volunteers.

BOB KANISH: They do not read in a monotone voice, they do inject life into it and really help to guide you along so that whatever the opera is going to deliver to you next, that you can pick up with your ears you are ready for it.

Kanish, who oversees audience services at KPBS, attends each opera preview and provides feedback to the audio describers. His wife Angela used to work for the opera and she initiated the audio description program because Kanish used to bug her during performances for updates about what was going on. Now any patron can obtain a headset before the opera to listen to the audio description service, which begins with program notes says O’Neil.

KAY O’NEIL: Program notes are just as if you opened the program and looked at it and read it and our patrons they can’t do that.

CLIP Welcome to the 50th anniversary season of San Diego Opera, I’m Kit Lynch…

Kanish has always been impressed by the music and voices in opera, but the audio description service helps bring a performance into focus for him so he can enjoy the opera more fully.

BOB KANISH: Now that you know what’s going on, you can then focus in on how brilliantly a composer paints that picture with music.


Beth Accomando, KPBS News.