Sep 24, 2023 - News

Lyric Opera's new SoundShirts let deaf patrons feel the music

Carrie trying out the SoundShirt during a Lyric Opera rehearsal. The lights correspond to where vibration is hitting on the body as the orchestra plays. Photo courtesy of Hannah Edgar.

Chicago's Lyric Opera is introducing state-of-the-art technology that will enable patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing to experience the power of the music in a new way.

Driving the news: Lyric will be the first opera company ever to offer the SoundShirt — which audience members can wear to literally feel the music — for live performances.

  • It'll be available at select Lyric shows, starting with "The Flying Dutchman" on Oct. 1.

Why it matters: Lyric hopes the technology will make the theater more accessible to fans who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Dozens of singers on a stage above an orchestra pit.
Dozens of chorus members and the orchestra during a rehearsal of "The Flying Dutchman." Photo: Carrie Shepherd/Axios

How it works: Microphones are placed over the orchestra and on the stage, recording sounds in real time that are sent to a computer where software translates it to digital data. It's then transported to trigger 16 motors scattered around the shirt, creating a vibration in the front of your shoulders, forearms and upper and lower back.

  • The force of the music and voices matches the intensity of the vibrations delivered through the shirt, so faint singing creates light tapping near the clavicle while the bass drum is a strong, rhythmic pounding on the lower back.
  • "People can feel melody, countermelody, the different rhythms that you naturally have in classical music," Lyric's Brad Dunn said at a press conference last week.
Dark blue and bright blue shirts on hangers on a clothing rack.
Lyric Opera's SoundShirts. Photo: Carrie Shepherd/Axios

What they're saying: Rachel Arfa from the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities is the city's first deaf commissioner. She consulted with Lyric on the SoundShirt, which she first tested during a performance of "West Side Story." She said it enhanced the experience by giving her "tactile access to the volume."

  • "When I watch a play or a performance, I look for cues that the scene is about to change, for example, the lighting may change, or you can tell the actor is getting ready to walk on," Arfa says. "[With the SoundShirt] I was able to actually hear the music that was helping to cue them."

Details: The SoundShirt, created by London-based wearable tech fashion brand CuteCircuit, costs about $1,500.

  • Lyric has 10 medium and large shirts, and tickets for SoundShirt performances are $20. Reservations will be required.

What we're watching: Lyric has been investing in other efforts to improve the theater's accessibility — including audio-described performances, program books in Braille and large print, and American Sign Language interpretations of English performances.


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