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Audio Describers Bring San Diego Opera To Visually Impaired

The free service is available at all operas

Audio Describers Allow Visually Impaired to Enjoy San Diego Opera

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.


San Diego Opera provides an underutilized service called audio description. It allows the visually impaired to enjoy an opera performance more fully.

If you go to the opera and all you get is the music and the singing, 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.

"Opera isn’t just music and singing, it’s a full play slash performance that is set to music and singing," said Bob Kanish who has been blind since birth. When he first began attending opera, he simply wasn’t as engaged as the sighted audience.

"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, you just have no idea what’s going on now. OK, everybody in the audience just laughed, why are they laughing," Kanish said.

That’s where Kay O’Neil comes in.

"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," O'Neil said.

"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 as much as everyone else is enjoying," Kanish said.

That’s true in part because O’Neil and her colleagues are passionate about what they are doing. For "La Boheme," O’Neil got to see the set up close so she could describe it better and make sure she conveyed how the look of the set colored the production.

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.

"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," O'Neil said.

"So 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 auditorily but while still allowing you to hear all this beautiful singing and music that’s going on," Kanish added.

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Kay O'Neil has been an audio describer for more than a decade. She provides descriptions of the opera for the visually impaired.

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.

"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," O'Neil said.

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 in to the audio description service, which begins with program notes says 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. And then we announce that the conductor is coming in and the curtain is about to go up..." O'Neil said.

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.

"Because the audio describer is describing a scene or some action going on and there’s no singing, you can hear, now that you know what’s going on, you can then focus in on how brilliantly a composer paints that picture with music," Kanish said.

San Diego Opera provides audio description services at all their operas. The next one, "Nixon in China," opens next week.


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