Audio commentary helps blind people enjoy the opera

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Joyce Driben has been blind from birth. But she saw the Pittsburgh Opera's production of "The Marriage of Figaro" on Tuesday night at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Marilyn Egan, the Pittsburgh Opera's director of education, prepares to describe the set and the action on stage and read the English translations of the songs in "The Marriage of Figaro" at the Benedum Center. Her work helps visually impaired people enjoy the opera.
Click photo for larger image.

During the performance, Driben listened through an audio headset as Marilyn Egan, the opera company's director of education, described the action on stage, the sets and costumes.

More importantly, Egan also told her listeners who was singing and, at the right moments, read the English words projected on the proscenium arch. She only speaks when the orchestra is playing, not when the performers are singing.

"It makes a huge difference. Marilyn is really excellent," Driben said.

Providing detailed audio commentary requires hours of preparation, but to Egan, "It's fun. When we are totally absorbed in a creative activity, we don't recognize the passage of time,'' she said.

Once the opera starts, "I'm so focused on making sure of what I'm hearing, what I'm seeing on the monitors, what I'm seeing on the score, what I'm anticipating I'm going to say. I have to describe it so I could understand it if I couldn't see it. And we're providing a service. And that's fulfilling," Egan added.

In the belly of the Benedum, Egan sits in a windowless storage room packed with stacks of black chairs, two drums and a large gong. The ceiling is low and fluorescent light bathes the space, but the silver-haired woman who wears a string of pearls around her neck seems not to notice that she is sitting in this glorified closet.

For three hours, Egan concentrated on two video monitors, a large one that shows the opera and a smaller one that flashes the English translation. Her left hand turned the pages inside a large three-ring binder that contained a copy of the conductor's score, which she annotates.

Before the overture began, Egan explained that the opera's plot shocked the audience that first saw it in 1786 because it featured a maid and a valet who outwitted an aristocrat. She also read a synopsis of the first two acts.

While Maestro John Mauceri conducted the stirring Mozart overture, Egan's head swayed with the music and she sipped some bottled water. She is well prepared because she rehearses twice before each Tuesday night performance.

"The lights on the stage have gradually come up. Figaro is sitting on one of those fold-up beds they have in hotels,'' Egan told her listeners.

In the auditorium, Driben, Marty Mathews, Peggy Walsh and Jeanne Kaufman have settled in their seats.

"I don't know a whole lot about opera. I'm learning more. Without this, I wouldn't even have explored this area," said Driben, a retired social worker who lives in Greenfield.

Bad vibes spur idea

Actually, it was a couple of bad experiences at the opera that prompted Driben and a friend to push for better service. About three years ago, she and longtime friend Sylvia Denys sat together in a box at the Byham. As the opera unfolded, Denys quietly described events to her.

"She was being shushed or getting dirty looks from people around us. I was very frustrated. I didn't know the language," Driben recalled.

Denys, who has accompanied Driben to plays and concerts for the past 30 years, also remembered the evening.

"We left before it was over because it was too difficult for me to tell her what was going on and all and it was bothering people around us," Denys said. Next, the two friends attended a Pittsburgh Opera dress rehearsal. Again, audience members protested when Denys began whispering to Driben.

"We started talking to people at the opera about the lack of accessibility for people who are blind," Driben said.

Denys, a longtime operagoer, is also a civil rights lawyer and frequently represents people who have disabilities. Through contacts at the opera, Denys arranged a meeting to see if any services could be offered to blind patrons. The meeting was fruitful. Pittsburgh Vision Service agreed to provide programs printed in Braille, and Egan agreed to do regular commentary on Tuesday nights.

In many ways, Egan, a dynamic woman, was the ideal choice. Since 1983, she has volunteered to read portions of the newspaper at the Radio Information Service, a nonprofit that provides a radio reading service for people who cannot read printed text. In April, the service honored her with the Charles T. Campbell Award for outstanding contributions to the community.

Egan, who holds a master's degree in music education from Duquesne University and a doctorate in that field from Kent State University, also knows how to read a conductor's score.

Preparing the Benedum

A similar audio commentary is available at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. But before such a service could be offered here, technicians needed to work their magic.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Edie Moser, an employee at the Benedum Center, gives Joyce Driben a pair of headsets before "The Marriage of Figaro." Driben goes to the opera with her guide dog, Nadia.
Click photo for larger image.Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Marilyn Egan, left, the Pittsburgh Opera's director of education leads Marty Mathews, with cane at center, and Jeanne Kaufman, right, to their seats at the Benedum Center. Egan's descriptions helped the visually impaired patrons enjoy the opera on Tuesday night.
Click photo for larger image.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which owns the Benedum, had to create a broadcast booth in a room where instruments are usually stored. Chris Evans, the Benedum's sound engineer, said a small radio studio was created beneath the theater's stage.

As Egan provides commentary, audio equipment broadcasts her voice through the theater's infrared system and into patrons' headsets. The equipment can be used by other companies that rent the Benedum.

Teenagers who participate in programs at Pittsburgh Vision Services used the head sets last summer.

"That was a whole new generation of students who went to the opera." Driben said, adding that older people who are starting to lose their sight can use the service, too.

Last week, during a dress rehearsal, two of Egan's fellow Radio Information Service volunteers joined her in the broadcast booth to watch her tour de force of multi-tasking.

Mary Ann Graziano, a physical education teacher in the Seneca Valley School District, and Marge Myers, who works at Carnegie Mellon University's Studio for Creative Inquiry, watched Egan work because they may learn how to do opera commentary, too.

Egan's descriptions, Driben said, "keep getting better and better. Without that, I hear the music but I've no idea what it's attached to."

Driben and Denys also attend City Theatre productions on the South Side. Before select Sunday matinees, Diane Nutting, the company's education director, stages a 30-minute "sensory seminar" where actors introduce themselves, explain what role they play and speak a line or two. This allows blind patrons to identify actors by the sound of their voices. Sets and costumes are described in detail and patrons are invited to explore the stage. City Theatre also provides large print and Braille programs.

"We are looking to provide audio description" in the spring of 2005, Nutting said, adding that the company will collaborate with VSA Arts, a national organization dedicated to improving access to the arts for people with disabilities.

A music-loving dog

At every outing, Driben is accompanied by her seeing-eye dog, Nadia, a yellow Labrador who sits on the floor and often on Denys' feet. Driben made certain that Nadia could behave at cultural events.

"She is my sixth seeing-eye dog. When I got my first dog, I ended up with a nonmusic loving dog. ... She would moan, groan, howl and whine. That particular Labrador did not get to go to many concerts."

While Nadia underwent training at a school in Morristown, N.J., Driben insisted that trainers expose the dog to music. At the school, Driben and Nadia sat and listened as another blind woman sang and accompanied herself on piano.

"She was a better pianist than singer. She was often slightly off-key. If Nadia could handle that, she could handle anything," Driben said.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at or 412-263-1648.


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