December 1, 2023

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Beats Of Music

How deaf fans of opera can feel the music with Lyric Opera’s new shirt

7 min read

Opera is everything all at once: music and drama, poetry and dance, grandeur and intimacy, spectacle and sound. This all-encompassing aspect makes it one of the most accessible art forms yet one of the most challenging to make accessible.

For audience members who are deaf or hard of hearing, or who are blind or have low vision, attending an opera can be a deeply frustrating experience.

A pilot program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is trying on a new approach for deaf and hard-of-hearing people to experience opera: the SoundShirt, a jacketlike garment equipped with 16 haptic actuators that transmit sound from the orchestra and stage into pulses, vibrations and other forms of haptic feedback in the shirt itself.

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Brad Dunn, who spearheaded the SoundShirt initiative at the Lyric, is the company’s senior director of digital initiatives and one of its most tireless advocates for expanding accessibility.

In addition to accommodations for mobility disabilities such as ramps and wheelchair seating, like many opera houses, the Lyric offers performances with American Sign Language interpretation, projected subtitles, and assisted listening devices for deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons. For blind people and those with low vision, the Lyric provides Braille and large-print programs, audio-described performances, high-powered glasses and pre-performance “touch tours,” allowing audience members to feel various props, costumes and surfaces before the curtain rises.

The SoundShirt, though, is cut from a different cloth than most accessibility technology, providing a mediated experience of the music that registers as physical and personal.

“It doesn’t re-create the experience of listening to music,” Dunn says. “It’s its own thing. It translates the music into a different sensory experience that can be felt by people. And what I’ve seen through all of the early testing that we did is that audiences who are deaf or hard of hearing have responded very viscerally to it.”

“That, to me, is what opera is all about,” says Lyric general director Anthony Freud. “It’s the punch to the solar plexus. One can have endless intellectual conversations about the content of operas, about interpreting operas. There’s a huge entertainment value, but ultimately the point to me is the emotional punch. … This was an opportunity to have a physical relationship with the music being performed, and that gets to the very heart of opera.”

For attendees at a Lyric production of “West Side Story” earlier this year, input from the SoundShirt didn’t just help provide additional detail to the performance — it also illuminated the musical spaces in between, the interludes and interstitial passages of music, the overtures overloaded with crucial cues. Dunn recalls one tester’s eyes welling up with tears after the performance.

“It was a confirmation that we were onto something, that it was working,” he says, “that this could actually be meaningful to these folks.”

Lyric’s SoundShirt project was launched in partnership with the city of Chicago’s Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities (MOPD), but the garment itself was designed by CuteCircuit, a London-based wearable technology design firm that Dunn became aware of in 2020, before he came to the Lyric.

Dunn immediately saw potential for the SoundShirt to not just enhance the company’s accessibility offerings but also harness the emotional impact of music minus the music itself. (It’s not for nothing that CuteCircuit’s other primary product is a HugShirt, which employs sensors and actuators to transmit virtual hugs between distant friends.) On the CuteCircuit website, a SoundShirt retails for about $1,900, making the Lyric’s free program accessible in more ways than one.

At the Lyric, an array of microphones positioned over various sections of the orchestra feeds audio information to a central computer. Dunn and his crew adapt the software to respond to the specific instrumentation of a given piece. (“West Side Story” has different rhythmic demands than, say, the Lyric’s current production of Janáček’s “Jenůfa.”)

Those audio signals are divided across seven channels, each mapped to one of 16 different “zones” on the SoundShirt, where motifs and melodies register as patterns and pulses across the garment’s 16 actuators.

Thus, for a production of “The Flying Dutchman,” the violins and cellos are assigned to trigger haptic feedback along the right and left shoulders and upper arms. Timpani and bass, meanwhile, are sent down to the lower torso and hips. Wagner’s mighty horns are split across the upper arms like goose bumps, while vocals register at the wrists like a pulse. The music becomes something you can feel.

Through a back-and-forth with testers, Dunn and his team have been experimenting with settings, tweaking parameters and trying to meaningfully map music to the body. The Lyric has 10 SoundShirts, with plans to ramp up to 15.

Rachel Arfa is a longtime disability advocate and civil rights attorney who serves as commissioner of MOPD. As a deaf person who wears bilateral cochlear implants, the issue of accessibility has been close to her heart for a long time. (Her mother tells her the story of how she was the only child not moved to tears by the music in “E.T.” when they saw it in the theater.)

But while expanding accessibility is her life’s work, Arfa also knows that good intentions can often pave the road to nowhere.

“When Lyric approached me with this shirt, I was highly skeptical,” Arfa said via email. “There are often technical solutions designed by people without disabilities for people with disabilities that do not solve barriers that we have.”

Intrigued enough, Arfa agreed to test the SoundShirt at a recent Lyric production of “West Side Story.” Arfa was surprised to find the shirt actually felt like a good fit for the problem it is trying to solve.

“At live theater, it is difficult for me to discriminate between different sounds, so I rely on access provided for equal access,” she says. “I began to understand that the haptics on the SoundShirt vibrated in conjunction with the orchestra sounds. One example is when string instruments were played, the haptics followed the pitch and rhythm. A second example is when a singer was singing a long melody, the haptics picked up on this and I could experience this through the vibration. I am not able to hear this sound, but I could feel it. It was such a surprise and a thrill.”

Tina Childress, an audiologist who lives in Champaign, Ill., is a late-deafened adult who wears cochlear implants and works as an advocate for accessibility in the arts. She has taken part in the Kennedy Center’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability conference and served on the steering committee for the Cultural Access Collaborative in Illinois.

In 2016, Childress sued the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis for refusing to provide captions to deaf and hard-of-hearing attendees, claiming that it was in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The court agreed and ordered the theater to offer captioning whenever requested (as opposed to single performances) and to provide notice that captions were available.

To Childress, who also tested the SoundShirt at “West Side Story,” what’s most important is offering a variety of options — an everything-all-at-once approach to accessibility.

“It’s important to remember that you can use two or three of these choices at the same time,” she said via email. “With the SoundShirt, having that tactile feedback for what I don’t hear was (pardon the pun) instrumental in me enjoying the performance.”

Childress appreciated the haptic feedback at the wrists to indicate dialogue, and the way the shirt clarified the various elements of the score. After intermission, she lent the shirt to another audience member to try out. “I didn’t realize how much I was using it until I didn’t have it.”

Both women appreciated the SoundShirt’s athletic-adjacent look and lightweight build.

“I have seen images of other haptic vests,” Childress says, “and the first thought that came to mind is it looked like a SWAT vest. The advantage of the zip-up is that you can make the haptic feedback more intense by zipping up, and if it becomes too much, you just unzip to lessen the effects.”

But most important to everyone involved, from the developers to the testers to the performers, is the potential for the SoundShirt to connect people more closely with opera, and to open the doors of the opera house to new audiences.

“I confess that I might have even fallen asleep because I struggled to connect with the show previously,” Arfa says. “The SoundShirt is a true enhancement to access services, and I am making plans to return for future performances, something I would not have done previously.”

The SoundShirt will be available at the Lyric’s performances of Rossini’s “Cinderella” on Jan. 21 and Terence Blanchard’s “Champion” on Jan. 31 and Feb. 3.


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