NYF Open Mic Spotlight: Hee-Jung Chung “Opera in the Dark; La Bohéme – Part Two

This week, NYF  Open Mic offers up Part Two of the interview with Hee-Jung Chung, Executive Producer/Director for Korea News Network (KNN). Ms. Chung earned not only 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,” but two other awards. She also took home a Bronze Trophy for Community Service and a Finalist Award for  Information Documentary.  Keep reading to find out how Hee-Jung came to create this extraordinary program, how she met Jaemun , the gifted blind vocal student/performer, how the Barrier-Free Opera was received by the pubic, and her dream project.

Hee-Jung Chung at the 2017 NYF Radio Awards

NYF Radio: How did you come up with the idea for this project?

“Meeting with a blind vocal arts student”

Hee-Jung Chung: March of 2016, I met Jaemun Jeong, a blind young man studying vocal arts. Every sound around him: from the sound of singing to the sound of a wind, sounded like a note in music to him, and his gift for music has been widely known to people around him. Although Jaemun is an opera singer aspirant, he said he had never attended an opera. When he went to see an opera for the first time in his life with me, Jaemun continuously asked what was happening on the stage. I got bombarded with constant questions from Jae-Moon, “Who came out? Why are they laughing? Why are they surprised…?” He was disappointed that he couldn’t see the facial expressions and acting of vocalists or the subtitles on the screen.

Jaemun reading braille music score

“Compensatory Senses”

There is a common view on compensatory senses, which means the lack of a physical sense is compensated with another physical sense. For example, a blind person will develop acute hearing. Surprisingly, most of the visually impaired that we interviewed had a sense of absolute pitch. The term “Ray Charles effect” refers to blind people developing acute hearing in music. Blind musicians such as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli are well-known examples. Research shows that people who lost vision as a child are more likely to develop acute hearing, and therefore, since musical talent is related to one’s hearing, it can be inferred that people with acute hearing could develop a musical talent as well.

“People with Visual Impairments and Operas”

While interviewing people with visual impairments, we found that many of them like music. To the visually challenged, music is a fair genre because listening to music has no restrictions for people with visual impairments. However, operas were different. From splendid stage settings to showy costumes, constant movements of performers, and to the subtitles that show the translation of the songs, operas are a composite work of art that consists of more visual features than any other genre of music. To understand an opera more in-depth, the story and lyrics need to be understood alongside its respective visual components.

“Barrier-Free Opera that was never made before”

In reality, first-timers for opera can feel rather distant regardless of being visually impaired or not, simply because the songs are sung in an unfamiliar language. Moreover, the languages are sung in poetic or archaic diction which make it even more difficult to understand. In Europe, even if the opera is sung in their own native language, many audiences buy the scripts before going to watch the opera. Real-time subtitles may be convenient; however, it may also obstruct their views and decide to focus only on the play. Thus, to better understand how opera works, you need to study the relative subject in question. This kind of situation can come to anyone and at any time. But, if such a situation comes to the visually impaired, what then?

When we visited the Busan School for the Blind, none of the students had attended an opera despite many who wanted to. Just like Jaemun who aspired to become an opera singer. That’s when I thought that there needed to be at least one method or content that could help the visually impaired. That’s when “Barrier-free Opera” begun, where everyone can be free and equal to one another, and to ‘fill up the empty spaces in our society with music.’

Visually imparied audience of Barrier-free Opera

NYF Radio: What was the goal of KNN when creating this program, and what was the result of this creative project?

Hee-Jung Chung: Opera in the dark is first-ever showcase of “Barrier-free Opera” as well as 6th special documentary broadcasting of “Barrier-free Opera.” Many of you may have questions as to how this “Barrier-free Opera” can be progressed through complete darkness. To be clear, I was not try to initiate a visually impaired ‘experience’. Being in a dark environment as one condition, I invited people to create the perfect stage in their own imaginative mind by concentrating on opera’s music. In the end, I hope to have created a new genre where everyone can experience a cultural activity through this barrier-free content. Despite having started this opera for the visually impaired, I also hope that everyone can enjoy opera as it’s not an easy genre of entertainment.

On September 8th, 2016, “La Bohème, Opera in the Dark”, the first barrier-free opera in Korea, was presented live for 70 minutes in complete darkness by 10 cast members including vocalists, voice actors and a pianist. The performance was successful and well received by the audience. (Please refer to the survey mentioned below) An audience of 800 people relied only on the sounds in complete darkness and imagined their own version of La Bohème.

Explanation to audience of how to enjoy Barrier Free Opera

A radio program including the three barrier-free operas and the documentary of the production of all the operas was broadcasted in 6 parts from KNN‘s Power FM channel.

KNN Radio Special Program, Barrier-Free Operas in 6 Parts

Part 1 <Opera of Empathy, Crossing the Wall of Disabilities> Documentary on Program Production

Part 2 <La Bohè me, Opera in the Dark> Live recording of special performance

Parts 3 & 4 <La Traviata, Opera for All Parts 1 & 2> with scene description and voice acting added to a famous recording of La Traviata.

Parts 5 & 6 <Die Zauberflöte, Opera that Became Light Parts 1 & 2> with live audio description added to the opera performed at Seoul Arts Center.

Also, a TV documentary on  the opera in the dark  production was made and broadcasted from KNN.

TV Documentary on Opera in the Dark

The operas were advertised and promoted through various television programs including news programs of KNN and other programs, and are expected to be expanded to a long-term nation-wide public project. The broadcast content will be made into audio books for the visually impaired and distributed with braille pamphlets to braille libraries, schools for the blind, associations for people with visual impairments and barrier-free theaters in multiplex cinemas so that they can be accessed by the visually impaired at any time. The materials will be distributed to cultural facilities across the country including Busan Cinema Center and Seoul Arts Center, encouraging sighted people to enjoy operas in a different way and to think of the need for cultural contents that can be enjoyed by people with and without disabilities.

Even though this program started as a project for people with sight loss, we wanted it to sound natural and have musical completeness. Moreover, I wanted to create a special feature where people without visual impairments could also enjoy the opera by integrating the use of imagining their own stage-set. This project helped us open our hearts and to better understand the difficulties which the visually impaired are facing on a daily basis, but also to feel beyond our abilities to see. So, with this project, I proved that an ideal hypothesis is right: “Each effort for disabled peopleis an effort for every human being.”

NYF Radio: How was this program received by the general public?

Hee-Jung Chung: The audience gave an enthusiastic response. Although the opera was performed in complete darkness, not even one person left the seat. In the survey conducted to 100 people who attended the performance, about 90 percent said they were more than satisfied with the opera.

About the need to barrier-free operas, more than half of the audience said it is necessary even though they said they hadn’t thought about it before the performance. One of our audiences said “I felt my heart beating fast. Then I realized something could make my heart throb…and sounds and voices could express so much…I thoroughly enjoyed it.” The other audience said “To be honest, I just thought operas were difficult to understand…this one, however, I could understand. Also, I enjoyed imagining the scenes because I couldn‘t see anything.” They all saw the need for barrier-free operas and their potential.

A large number of the audience were visually impaired. Mr. Byeong-don Lee, the chairman of the Korea Blind Union said Blind people love music but operas were the most challenging genre. This is my first time to attend one so I came from Seoul with high expectation. This opera gave a great opportunity for all of us to understand one another, share each other‘s feelings through music and crossing the wall between one another.” and Mr. Yeong-hee Song, the president of Dialogue in the Dark were in the audience. La Bohème was a special opera to them. “I don‘t think this opera is made only for the blind. It was too enjoyable. Every cast member had a different voice but they went together so well. Just like a harmonious orchestra of voices. I could picture an orchestra. It’s so different and a performance designed for a certain audience could become something to be enjoyed by all. Someone said before that facilities designed for people with disabilities will become facilities for all after all. Same as with this performance. At first it was planned for certain people to enjoy, but I think it became a performance everyone else can enjoy. It was amazing and inspiring.”

Amongst music genres, operas are considered the most visual composite art. And La Bohème was presented only by sounds in complete darkness. Since it was heard through ears and seen with mind‘s eye, it became the only opera of the kind in the world.

Curtain Call of La Bohéme

Perhaps this opera was for us who miss out on so many things because of the things we see. With barrier-free operas that have become operas for all, we can dream of a barrier-free world.

NYF Radio: What is your personal dream project that you’d like to create? Or have you already created it and if so, what was it?

Hee-Jung Chung: I believe people who believe in changing the world are actually changing the world. I always want to make program what can change even little part of the world. Now, I am preparing a performance of “Opera In the Dark” in English in New York (Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations) & Houston (Brown Auditorium Theater of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston or Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater of Asia Society Texas Center, or Cullen Performance Hall of Houston University / Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Houston invited). If any of you want to know any further information of Barrier-Free Opera, please e-mail me. (dartemore@Hotmail.com) I need your interest. Thank all of you. Thank NYF!!

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

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