Hearing—and Seeing—The Magic Flute with Both Ears
Flying red lips. Pirouetting pink elephants. The Queen of the Night as a giant spider. These are just a few of the many fantastical images in director Barrie Kosky and British theater group 1927’s reimagining of The Magic Flute, coming to the Mostly Mozart Festival July 17–20. This staging of Mozart’s whimsical fairytale opera draws from a variety of media and periods, blending two- and three-dimensional worlds encompassing live music, projected animations, and silent-film–like formats. With such a unique take on a beloved opera, Lincoln Center wants to ensure this piece is accessible to as many audiences as possible, including patrons who are blind or have low vision. At the July 18 performance, audio description will be available.
Every year, Lincoln Center presents a performance with audio description, a live verbal commentary with information and cues detailing the visual elements of a piece. Before a performance begins, patrons typically listen to pre-show notes on costumes, scenery, and staging, delivered via a single earpiece, which “set the stage” for the performance. During the show, a trained audio describer communicates the physical and visual elements of the action, between dialogue, so that patrons are fully immersed in the sounds on stage.
To offer audio descriptions for an event with such rich and eclectic visual storytelling at its core, Lincoln Center had to get creative. Strategizing an approach specific to The Magic Flute’s whirling animations, live music, and projected intertitles and supertitles, Lincoln Center enlisted two master audio describers, Laura H. Congleton and Rob Urbinati. Congleton will provide verbal descriptions of the visual aspects of the opera and Urbinati will read the supertitles, translating German to English.
As the curtain goes up on July 18, timing will be everything. Both describers will need to be perfectly in sync with what’s happening on stage and with each other, to ensure the opera’s myriad of tones, imaginative visual moments, and punchlines land successfully. “The biggest challenge will be locating the places to speak, so that Laura and I are not ‘stepping on’ the libretto,” notes Urbinati. “For example, we can provide description and read supertitles during extended instrumental interludes, or when the cast is singing and holding a unison word. Once the audience hears the unison word, our spoken description and reading of supertitles will not interfere with the libretto.” The goal of audio description is not to interfere with what’s happening on stage, but to fill in the gaps, by describing facial expressions, costumes, props, and action sequences, so that guests can follow the plot fully and independently.
“I’ve always wanted to describe an opera because they’re so visually rich,” Congleton says. “It’s nice to see more types of events opening their doors to live description. I recently had a great deal of fun describing The Red Violin for the New York Philharmonic. It’s so exciting that more opportunities are opening the arts up to more attendees.” Congleton adds that she sees the event she’s describing in advance, takes notes, and does research on the topic so she’s fully prepared to articulate what’s happening on the stage.
This is a collaborative effort with Congleton and Urbinati, as well as cultural institutions that have shared their insight and experiences, including the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library at the New York Public Library. The NYPL is helping to convene a focus group of patrons to shape The Magic Flute’s audio description experience. Prior to the performance, focus group members will listen to and provide feedback to a sample description of a scene from a video clip of The Magic Flute. Their feedback and comments will be incorporated into the audio describers’ live descriptions on July 18.
Providing audio description for The Magic Flute is just one of Lincoln Center’s efforts to advance the institution’s commitment to creating inclusive spaces that respond to audience members’ needs. In addition to offering audio description for select performances, Lincoln Center is working to find more opportunities where guests who are blind or have low vision can engage with the arts beyond the stage. Throughout the year, Verbal Description and Touch Tours are led by tour guides trained in audio description who provide patrons with tactile models of the Lincoln Center campus, including the iconic fountain and the interiors and exteriors of performance halls.
Preparing and presenting audio description for an intricate, multimedia and multi-genre production like The Magic Flute is an example of how the larger field of the performing arts is focused on making more art forms accessible to a broader and more inclusive audience. “Lincoln Center has offered audio description for many performances over the years and we’re especially excited to share this stunning show,” says Miranda Hoffner, Assistant Director of Accessibility and Guest Services at Lincoln Center.
“This Magic Flute presents such unique challenges in ensuring that all aspects—the staging, projections and supertitles—are clear and vivid for guests who are not able to access them visually,” Hoffner adds. “We’re so thrilled to have Laura and Rob on our team, as well as the opportunity to demo with a focus group of avid performing-arts audio description consumers. It will be a remarkable performance.”
There is limited availability for audio description seats on July 18 at 7:00 pm. For patrons attending this performance, audio descriptions receivers will be available in any area of the house at no additional cost. For tickets, or to reserve receivers, contact [email protected] or 212-875-5375.
For more information about Lincoln Center's Guided Tour Program, please reach out to [email protected] or 212-875-5350.
Laurel Toyofuku is Manager of Global Partnerships at Lincoln Center.
For more information on the Mostly Mozart Festival, visit MostlyMozartFestival.org.