FEATURE-What goes in the eyes comes out the mouth

By Barbara Novovitch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Explaining the credo for the Washington Opera Company's audio describers, who create "pictures" of the staging and costumes for a blind audience, Cody Pfanstiehl puts it succinctly: "What goes in the eyes comes out the mouth."

In the U.S. capital, at the opera company headed now by superstar tenor Placido Domingo, the blind and visually impaired can "see" as well as hear productions this season of Gounod's "Romeo and Juliette" and Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

They are the beneficiaries of a system created and developed by Margaret and Cody Pfanstiehl -- she is blind, he is not -- that is widely used by theaters for plays and is now catching on for operas both in the United States and abroad.

Margaret Pfanstiehl received an Emmy, U.S. television's highest accolade, for her leadership in bringing that medium to the visually handicapped in 1990 through audio description. At the Washington Opera Company's request, the Pfanstiehls branched out into opera three years ago -- a more demanding discipline than describing unsung drama because of the simultaneous subtitle translation now widely used for opera.

Audio describers do for the blind what signers and closed captioning on television do for the deaf. In theaters, they talk via small FM radios or infrared transmitters to visually limited and blind listeners seated anywhere in the audience. During pauses in the dialogue, listeners hear descriptions of actions, body language, lights and costumes through a tiny earphone. Other members of the audience are not disturbed.


"One of our challenges is to bring subtitles in addition to the description ... and not ruin the music. The describers get a subtitle script to go over in advance. They also get a video in advance of the performance so they can learn the musical cues," Margaret Pfanstiehl, who lost her sight at 30 because of retinitis pigmentosa, told Reuters in an interview.

The technique is slightly different for theater and for opera. "If you're doing drama, you dare not talk over any of the talk ... but there are times even during an aria (when) you have to jump in -- if she's about to plunge the dagger or something significant is happening in terms of the plot," her husband Cody explained.

The Pfanstiehls have trained describers for theaters in 17 states and for operas in Australia. England and Scotland also have picked up the idea. In Britain, audio description has been mandated for television, a move the Pfanstiehls hope the U.S. Federal Communications Commission will soon follow.

In recent months, the FCC has mandated closed captioning for the deaf for virtually all television. But Margaret Pfanstiehl said, "You can't have an information superhighway and slam the door on the low-vision and the blind."

Audio description grew out of her non-profit radio reading service for the blind and physically handicapped, the Metropolitan Washington Ear, also available since 1991 as a dial-in service that enables subscribers to scan newspapers and magazines from any telephone, day or night.

Currently, opera fans who are visually impaired can indulge their passion in Washington, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Seattle, San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio. But not in New York City, Chicago or Houston.


"This is something other cities could move into, but if they don't have an audio description service they would need to recruit people and train them for it. I particularly throw out a challenge to the Metropolitan Opera. ... The Met ought to be doing this," Margaret Pfanstiehl said.

"I think a lot of visually impaired people don't understand just how damned visual the world really is, the cumulative amount of information you lose by simply axing everything visual out of people's lives," she said.

"Blindness does many things," she continued. "It affects your mobility, it affects your ability to read print." It also affects social relationships. Blind people, for example, may get stuck listening to a bore at a cocktail party if they are unable to see him or her approaching.

The Pfanstiehls said they assign their best describers to opera performances. "If you pay so much for these opera tickets, the quality of description you get should be commensurate with the performance. Otherwise you're cheapening the whole experience," Margaret Pfanstiehl said, and her husband agreed.

Ambassador Edward Rowny, a top U.S. arms negotiator who lost his vision through macular degeneration about four years ago, said audio description has heightened his appreciation: "I get more out of operas now that I'm nearly blind than I did when I could see well."

The Pfanstiehls select describers from volunteers but they audition and train them first. "Audio describing is a talent that can be developed but it cannot be taught," he said. The successful ones must have a good vocabulary and command of language and the ability to be spontaneously articulate.

They also have to make judgments about what to describe and when. "There may be seven or eight things that you would like to take up," she explained, "but you won't have time for but three or four -- you have to prioritize."

"Being evaluative or interpretative is one of the biggest no-nos," she added. "I remember once going with a novice describer to a performance of the Caine Mutiny. She said (into the earphone), `He's leading the witness on.' I said, `You don't do that. Blind people can hear, the problem is that they can't see."'

She went on: "Most blind people that come to the theater are fairly sophisticated; if you can come to the conclusion that he's leading the witness on, so can a blind person. You're there to be the eyes, the color camera lens -- what comes in the eye goes out the mouth." REUTERS

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