The opening bars of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” are as visceral as in opera: the icy clang of tremolo strings, followed by a full-breasted, long woodwind chorale.
For those listening, that is. There doesn’t seem to be much going on for hearing-impaired audiences during the overture to Lyric Opera’s “The Flying Dutchman,” which opens the company’s 2023-24 season this year. The minimal stage action (a drawn curtain, dim lights, and empty stage) gives no sense of what’s going on musically. If conductor Enrique Mazzola had not made energetic movements in the pit, you would not have been able to tell that the orchestra was playing at all.
SoundShirt, a wearable tactile accessory that Lyric Opera is using in partnership with the Mayor’s Office for Persons with Disabilities (MOPD) this season, changes that. When the strings start playing, users feel a thrill in their shoulders and upper chest. When the horns begin to sing, it is perceived as a buzz in both elbows.
Lyric will provide SoundShirts to audiences of up to 10, mostly matinees, at select shows this season, starting with a performance of “Flying Dutchman” on Oct. 1. Users will physically feel what is happening in the music; a breakthrough for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences and a first for an opera company anywhere in the world.
MOPD commissioner Rachel Arfa, who is deaf, often relies on visual context cues, such as onstage blocking or lighting changes, to predict transitions between musical numbers when attending live theater. He says experiencing SoundShirt’s first demo during last season’s “West Side Story” gave him a better understanding of how much music was revealed throughout this production.
“I didn’t know that the orchestra continued playing while everyone was applauding at the end. “I couldn’t access that sound,” Arfa said at a press conference introducing the device at the Lyric Opera House on Sept. 19. “It was very powerful to be able to pick up on other clues that I had never experienced.”
Designed by London-based company CuteCircuit, the SoundShirt resembles a bit of a stylish, lightweight athletic jacket. The 16 haptic actuators built into the fabric are “fancy talk for small motors,” says Brad Dunn, Lyric’s senior director of digital initiatives. These actuators correspond to one microphone above the stage and seven microphones placed near various instrumental sections in the Lyric’s orchestra pit. (Optionally, the actuators can glow like something out of a sci-fi movie, but a Lyric spokesperson assured the Tribune they’ll remain dark during performances.) During “The Flying Dutchman,” SoundShirt wearers will feel the deepest instruments of the orchestra (string basses and drums) thundering along their sides and lower backs. Woodwind instruments, especially clarinets, tickle the chest when played.
This somatic mapping will vary depending on the repertoire. Dunn can reprogram SoundShirts to better suit the subtleties of a particular note or adjust based on feedback from users; Like it did in June when a deaf and hard-of-hearing audience tested SoundShirts during Lyric’s broadcast of “West Side Story.” He can even adjust the actuators’ levels live during the performance, like an engineer working on a soundboard.
“That’s going to vary from show to show. I can see us playing with it a little more as we go along,” Dunn says.
Tickets to borrow SoundShirts are $20 each and correspond to designated seats in the first 20 rows on the right side of the house. To start, 10 medium and large-sized SoundShirts will be available for select shows; The company expects a second shipment of small and extra-large SoundShirts to arrive later in the season, which will bring the total number to approximately 15 per performance. The garment is intended to be worn over users’ normal clothing, but Lyric recommends users avoid thick or loose clothing to avoid dampening the SoundShirt’s vibrations.
That said: no sleeveless tops, please. And while Lyric can’t stop SoundShirt users from drinking $1,500-a-piece pinots during intermission, the company understandably insists on caution.
“These go through the dry cleaning process after each production, so we want to keep them in good condition for as long as possible,” says Dunn.
Lyric’s SoundShirt initiative has precedent. Philadelphia-based label Music: Not Impossible, similar wearable actuators It has been used in productions of Opera Philadelphia and the International Brazilian Opera Company.
But Lyric is the first company to offer such accommodations for multiple productions. According to Anthony Freud, Lyric’s managing director, president and CEO, SoundShirt builds on the company’s deep commitment to disability access, which to date has included audio descriptions of productions, theater touch tours, Braille program books and English-language ASL interpreters. operas.
Freud also said accessibility informed Lyric. latest relocation projectby changing the size and angle of the seats, he reduced the house’s capacity by nearly 300.
“One of the most important journeys the company has been on over several years has been our focus on inclusion, diversity, equity and access. This is a journey that will continue into the future,” Freud said at the September 19 press conference. “Today’s announcement and the entire SoundShirt project are a crucial part of advancing our focus on access in every aspect of our business.”
SoundShirt has been used to accompany live classical music performances since its debut in 2016, when it was first introduced at a concert by the Junge Symphoniker Hamburg. The product grew out of the HugShirt, a CuteCircuit invention considered the “first wearable haptic telecommunications garment.” But CuteCircuit’s collaboration with Lyric marks the first time SoundShirt has been used for opera. In the September 19 SoundShirt preview, it was clear that the technology was built with orchestras in mind. Actuators tended to be more receptive to the sounds of the orchestra than to the singers on stage; they reliably detected solo singers only when they reached the forte-plus range. SoundShirt likewise had inconsistent responses to solo instrumental lines.
“Keep the word ‘pilot’ in mind,” Freud warns.
As Dunn and accessibility advocates emphasize, when it comes to touch-based technology, the goal is not to replicate a hearing person’s experience but to create an entirely new experience. In this sense, SoundShirt belongs to all of us. Experience awe-inspiring operatic moments where music is something felt, not heard, humming on skin, on the floor, on your sternum.
“We don’t recreate the experience of hearing music because it can’t be recreated. It’s its own thing,” says Dunn.
SoundShirt tickets will be available for $20 for the following performances, all at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Upper Wacker Drive; more information at www.lyricopera.org:
- “The Flying Dutchman,” October 1, 2 p.m.
- “Jenůfa”, 14 November. 12
- “The Regiment’s Daughter”, 16 November 14:00
- “Cinderella,” January 21, 2024, 2:00 p.m.
- “Champion,” January 31 at 14:00 and February 3, 2024 at 19:30
- “Aida”, 17 March at 14.00,
Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.
The Rubin Institute of Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune retains editorial control over assignments and content.