NYF Open Mic Spotlight:Hee-Jung Chung “Opera in the Dark; La Bohéme – A World Premiere of Barrier-Free Opera for the Visually Impaired”

NYF’s Open Mic Spotlight Interview features prominent award-winner’s from the wonderful world of radio. This week, NYF interviews Hee-Jung Chung, Executive Producer/Director for Korea News Network(KNN). Ms. Chung earned a Gold Trophy for Best Audio Book – Fiction for her outstanding entry “Opera in the Dark; La Bohéme -A World Premiere of Barrier-Free Opera for the Visually Impaired.”

Hee-Jung Chung accepting the 2017 NYF Gold Trophy


In part one of this interview with Hee-Jung Chung, offers insights into the logistical and technical challenges that she encountered when creating this award-winning program. Join NYF’s Open Mic us next week for part two of this revealing in-depth interview.

NYF Radio: KNN’s “Opera in the Dark; La Bohéme – A World Premiere of Barrier-Free Opera for the Visually Impaired” earned the Gold Trophy for their award-winning program that was presented live for 70 minutes in complete darkness by 10 cast members including vocalists, voice actors and a pianist. What technical and logistical challenges did you encounter when creating this program?

Hee-Jung Chung: I decided to produce the world’s first barrier-free version of ‘La Bohéme’ as an actual performance and present it like a showcase in order to raise awareness about the need for barrier-free operas.

Barrier-Free Opera Logo


This opera is dubbed barrier-free because all performances will be in the dark to showcase the operas to audiences under the same condition: a complete absence of light. While barrier-free contents with audio description in television programs and movies are being produced increasingly, no opera, which is a comprehensive form of art, has been made with barrier-free accessibility. Therefore, I had to stat from zero, creating everything from beginning to end. Since no barrier-free opera was made ever before and no opera was ever performed in complete darkness before, a number of unexpected variables and situations occurred. But through these hard obstacles, it taught us the real hardships and the difficulties people with visual impairments face in a day to day basis.

Challenge 1 . Understanding darkness

When I came up with this idea first, nobody understood what I wanted. Nobody thought it is possible. I had to take care of everything. Many of my staffs didn’t understand why do I need to make a performance in ‘complete darkness’. They were embarrassed about that performance will be held in complete darkness. “How will the vocalists come on and leave the stage?” “Will the voice actors be able to read the script?” “How about musicians? Will they be able to see the music or the keys on the piano?” Everyone was extremely worried. I wanted to motivate them. I wanted them to think about the purpose of this performance. For that, we had to understand darkness.  I don’t have a physical disability. Except for Jaemun Jeong (visually impaired vocal student/special appearance), our cast and staff do not have a visual impairment.

Voice Actors and Vocalist practicing La Bohéme, Opera in the Dark

In July when fierce discussions on darkness were taking place, we visited Dialogue in the Dark, located in Seoul to find an answer. ‘Dialogue in the Dark’ is a place where you experienced your daily life for 100 minutes in complete darkness. It is rather a special world where you can touch, feel and perceive by using all your senses except sight. We receive more than 90 percent of information through our eyes. Interestingly, however, we could imagine just because we couldn‘t see. Although all of us were travelling in the same place, what we saw in our minds was different from one another. What would it be like to have a drink we always have? Guess what? We  could not tell the taste of it, even when we drink coke. Actually, we didn’t have the slightest idea that it was a cola…(some guests said they couldn’t taste anything).

This journey in the darkness reminded all of us that how much we rely on our sight and how information can be distorted as we are too reliable on what we see. It is Yeong-hee Song, the president of this special place. After losing his eyesight due to a tragic accident, Mr. Song said he discovered a new world in darkness. “In my case, I became used to using other senses gradually that helped me perceive the world surrounding me without having to see. I think by doing so that find pleasure in perceiving the world in you own way.  It may sound way too optimistic to those who just lost their eyesight. I of course understand how they must feel because I’ve been there. I can assure them that they will become relaxed eventually and find a different means of communication that goes beyond eyesight.”

We found a clue here. Our audience will be listening to Opera La Bohéme in the complete  darkness. By concentrating only on music and sounds, which are considered the key elements of an opera, they will be imagining their own stages. To let them do so, we will keep it dark. Darkness is after all a key to a whole new world.

Also, I decided to do the trial in darkness. First, pianist So-hyang Sohn had to play the piano in darkness. I was more concerned about the pianist than any other cast. However, after her trial play in impenetrable darkness she can’t even see an inch before her, she said, “I’ve never played in the complete darkness before. I have been playing for 30 years, but what surprised me was the feeling on the tips of my fingers was completely different. The texture of the keys was something I’ve never touched before. It wasn’t what I knew before. Beside, because I couldn’t see anything, I could concentrate my mind. The level of focus went up. Interestingly I made a mistake when  I played with the lights came on (it was true…interesting) When I played with the lights out, I had to rely on the feeling on my fingertips and I could focus better. So, If I was playing in such a situation. I mean at a performance attended by people with visual disabilities. I though it would be meaningful and I could focus better.” How about the singers? SOP. Jiyoung Jeon said “When reaching a climax, when we need to focus more and breathe out longer, we sing with our eyes closed. If we can keep doing that from beginning to end, I think we can definitely focus better.”

Challenge 2. Making darkness

I had to check if it would be possible to perform an opera in the dark. When we first went a concert hall, we started to turn off the lights inside the concert hall one by one. Finally, all the lights were out, However, it wasn’t easy to make the concert hall completely dark. Emergency exit lights were quite bright, but those lights couldn’t be controlled here at the concert hall, but from the emergency control room.There were other problems apart from the emergency exit lights. Lights were leaking through the seats and on the stage. There were so many lights, a lot more than we thought. Hun-seok Jang, the lighting director who has taken care of the lighting for all the performances held at the concert hall of Busan Cinema Center, was astonished at bringing complete darkness into the concert hall. He said “Complete darkness in the concert hall only existed in the audiences’ imagination. There was never 100 percent darkness. When all the lights were turned off, there was always light. Therefore, it was really hard to get rid of all the lights completely. And I also realized that there were lights coming from everywhere that I didn’t notice before.” After contacting a number of departments and waiting for a long time, we were able to have complete darkness.

We also had to be concerned how the audience will respond to the complete darkness. Despite legal issues, it could not be tolerated for some audiences. We couldn’t just lock people up in darkness for 90 minutes. In every theater, audiences can leave to take care of psychological matters. If someone is psychologically scared, we need to be able to let him leave. The theater approved this performance only after receiving a memorandum of understanding that I am responsible for all these situations. Besides, we notified  about darkness to every potential audiences. We hired double numbers of ushers & staff, more  than the usual performance.

Challenge 3. STRUCTURE : Enormous meeting, rewriting, practicing and practicing…

It was not easy to structure the opera. Since there are many visual factors that have to be described in the opera. When you come to think of it, there are so many elements in operas that need to be seen with eyes from including dazzling stages, fancy costumes and singers’ gestures and even the subtitles, that is, translation of characters’ lines and songs. Besides, so many operas consist of singing from the beginning to the end, which would give little time to describe the entire operas. Above all, operas are considered as a difficult genre by sighted people. I asked myself again & again. Could people with visual impairments see through sounds and sighted people also enjoy operas without having to read subtitles?

Advisor Sumi Jo with KNN's Hee-Jung Chung

I formed a team of experts from different fields. A production team was composed of a producer who majored in vocal arts (me), a writer specializing in audio description, and an opera coach. Opera expert Sumi Jo, a barrier-free accessibility related group and organization for the blind volunteered to offer advice. Opera singers Jiyoung Jeon and Dongwon Shin who have played key roles in operas around the world joined us in our operas, and veteran voice actors such as Hye-jeong Seo, Deok-hee Choi and Han-seong Bae provided their voices for audio description and characters.

How much should be described by audio became the first issue. Sumi Jo, one of the world’s most famous opera singers, agrees to the difficulty to understand operas. She made such comments like “In Europe, subtitles are shown even when an opera is performed in the country where the same language is spoken,” and the problem gets bigger when singing with translated words from one language to another as the underlying meaning, nuances and accents intended by the composer could be affected. Moreover, another problem is when the lyrics in the songs are not heard clearly when they are sung. Sumi Jo said “It is sometimes hard to understand the words of the song that my partner vocalist is singing, Even though he is singing next by me.” While differences in nuances can vary greatly from language to language, it is the vocalization methods that make it hard to understand the words in an opera. Therefore, I decided to produce operas in their original languages rather than adapting the lyrics into Korean, and instead provide description  of scenes and subtitles.

Rehearsal of barrier-free opera

If the lyrics were translated and sung by vocalists, then scenes are the only ones needed to be described, thus making the performance far simpler. However, I did not want to diminish the visually impaired audience‘s first opera experience. After a number of meetings and modifications of the script, I was finally able to complete the music and script through translation, allowing voice actors to read the script during the breaks between phrases. Subtitles could be more effectively delivered by adopting more liberal translation instead of word for word translation. In Barrier-Free Opera, while piano was played, the narrator describes the stage and the motions of the characters. Italian words in songs were delivered in Korean by voice actors for each character after vocalists sang.

Challenge 4. Effort to Give an equal opportunity to Visual Impaired People

I also had to decide whether Jaemun Jeong, a blind vocal arts student who inspired us to start this project, should take part or not. I asked the vocalists including soprano Sumi Jo

Jaemun and Sumi Jo

about their opinions and it was decided that Jaemun should participate as Rodolfo in the duet in Act 4. When the cast were finalized, practice began in full swing including reading the script in the darkness.

Pamphlets and posters containing both normal writing and braille were produced so that visually impaired people could read them.


Challenge 5. Expressing opera only relying on sound

Since there would be no sounds generated by acting, special sound effects indicating the direction of motions were also produced for the opera. To help the audience to picture the space and movements, we therefore decided to create such noises. We created sounds by tearing paper, painting with a brush on canvas, and clinking glasses…etc. Effects were added to those sounds to indicate directions. E.g. As that Rodolfo and Mimi are walking on the snow, leaving the stage to the right, (Sound of 2 persons’ footsteps moving from  left to right, or assuming the door is on the right side of the stage, I set the door opening from the right side of the stage. On the empty stage where there’s no light, these sounds described space and movements of the characters. Since the opera consists only of sounds, I wanted to let the audience imagine by hearing the sounds. As to let them imagine the settings by listening to sounds, three-dimensional sound effects were added and all the sounds were becoming complete.

Stay Tuned for part two of the interview with Hee-Jung Chung and learn more about this break-through award-winning program.

For more information on New York Festivals Radio Program Awards, please visit: http://www.newyorkfestivals.com/radio/


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