Making opera accessible: Pre-recorded audio description

Post date: 
Thursday, 11 July 2019
Category: 
TV, Radio and Film

Alice Gilmour from Opera North spoke about her role in making opera accessible.

Making opera accessible is my role at Opera North and yet I was aware that our increasing use of concert halls for our very well-received semi-staged productions of Turandot, Salome and more recently Aida, had meant that we were not accessible to anyone who cannot see the displayed surtitles, as they have all been sung in their original languages. So as an audio describer myself, I decided to trial pre-recording audio description.

A look at Opera North’s show reports revealed that timings only deviated by a maximum of one to two minutes over each half of a performance.  When I recorded it, I read my text a bit earlier than I might in a live situation so that if the synchronisation was slightly out, I would not be talking over the first few notes of a well-known aria for instance.

I emailed the users links to the audio files and some instructions for operation, contacted the concert halls to inform them that that the trial was taking place and to share the Wi-Fi with users, and front of house were informed so that users wouldn’t be asked to turn off their phones!

The feedback overall was fantastic: 

“it was quite obvious that using a phone with our own headsets and a reliable production assistant … was much better than anything that we have had in any theatre anywhere in Europe.   I could hear your voice clearly without impinging on the neighbours and everything ran as smoothly as one could hope for.”

Another user wrote to us in email:

“I would say it is one million times better than the old system. The sound was much clearer and it did not cut off if I or somebody nearby moved at all. I would imagine it would be impossible to get the timing 100% in sync, as it does depend on exactly when you press the play button, but it was very good. Personally, I liked the way you only said what was necessary to help understand what was happening, without interrupting the music.”

So, for productions that do not vary too much in timings, pre-recording audio description would be a great way of allowing blind and partially sighted customers to attend performances in spaces that don’t have the technology.  And for venues that do have the technology, in addition to offering a live audio described performance and touch tour, making the pre-recorded files available would allow people to choose any performance.