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New Zealand Opera to provide braille surtitles for live performances | Blindness and visual impairment

New Zealand Opera to provide braille surtitles for live performances | Blindness and visual impairment
New Zealand Opera to provide braille surtitles for live performances | Blindness and visual impairment


New Zealand’s blind and low-vision opera fans will be the first in the world to have access to braille surtitles, designed to enrich their experience of a live performance without the interference of audio descriptions.

Opera companies around the world regularly use surtitles – where lyrics or scripts are translated into other languages and published on screens during a live performance – to give audiences a deeper understanding of what is being said or sung on stage, in real time.

Until now, the primary option for vision-impaired operagoers to understand the opera text has been through audio descriptions, which can interfere with the music.

NZ Opera’s general director, Brad Cohen, developed the technology alongside his company contexts.live. It sends braille surtitles to a user’s personal braille-reading machine at the same time as the sighted audience is reading the translations on screen.

Brad Cohen: ‘For us this is a really important step in levelling the playing field.’ Photograph: Andi Crown Photography

Cohen believes the technology is a world first and could change the way vision-impaired operagoers connect with a performance.

“Blind and low-vision patrons have always been at a disadvantage – they haven’t had the same experiences as the rest of the room was having,” Cohen said. “For us this is a really important step in levelling the playing field, giving them the same experience and same text as the rest of the audience is seeing.”

Users of the technology access the text through a webpage on their phone, which then sends the words, line by line, to the braille reader.

“The beauty of the technology we built is that it has lots of outputs, they are all live-synchronised to what is going on on stage,” Cohen said.

That means a sighted person can read it on the opera screen, a low-vision person can read it in large text on their device and at the same time a blind person could be either listening to it or reading it in braille.

Cohen hopes the technology will be adopted by others in the live performance realm. “We would love opera companies to take it but we see huge potential for conferences or anything where there is an existing script.”

After a successful first opera trial during the Auckland season of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, the technology will now become a permanent option for NZ Opera’s performances.

Paul Brown, a blind opera fan and co-director of the company Audio Described Aotearoa, assisted Cohen with the technology and was part of the trial last week. He said the technology was “life changing”.

“It’s a recognition of braille as the primary literacy method for a group of people, but secondly, it means we are getting the surtitles the whole audience are seeing,” Brown said.

The latter was particularly important for Le Comte Ory because it had been translated into New Zealand slang, he said, adding that listening to opera without an audio description and still being able to understand the text added “another layer” to the performance.

“I know the audience was laughing at the surtitles because they were so idiosyncratic – to know what they were laughing at, you had to have access to the surtitles.”

He said the potential for the technology was exciting. “People around the world who are braille enthusiasts are really thinking about what this could be used for and what it could open up – potentially it’s a lot.”



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