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Broadening access to the opera: Music for the hearing-impaired

In an effort to broaden access to music and to challenge the status quo of the opera, internationally acclaimed South African operatic tenor, Stéfan Louw included a sign language interpreter at his concert at the Pierneef Theatre in Pretoria this past Sunday 19 September 2021. Nearly a quarter of the audience had hearing impairments.

Stéfan Louw sign language music for the deaf
L-R Eugene Joubert (pianist), Stéfan Louw (tenor), Werner van Coller (baritone), Corniël Calitz (bass-baritone), and Pastor Dirk Venter (sign language interpreter)

‘Opera for the deaf is not something new. Several opera companies in America and Europe perform for the hearing-impaired,’ says Louw. ‘But, to the best of my knowledge, yesterday was the first time that a sign language interpreter translated an opera production in South Africa for a hearing-impaired audience.’ 

Louw, who made his operatic debut in 1998 when he was 25 years old, has since held more than 1000 performances in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, America, and Europe. He founded two of Gauteng’s opera companies and, recently, a third in the Free State. In 2001, he quit his day job as a retail salesperson and launched a series of concerts called Aria! Opera for Everyone. Louw then started to include a narrator to engage the audience and explain the story behind each aria.

‘This way,’ he explains, ‘no-one can say that they do not understand opera. The narration is in simple English and delivered in a fun and humorous manner.’

Stéfan Louw sign language music for the deaf
The artists with the group of hearing-impaired people who attended the concert
Stéfan Louw sign language music for the deaf
Ernest Mhlongo, his daughter Raeesa Mhlongo, and Stéfan Louw

Pastor Dirk Venter, the founder of Deaf Friendly, who interpreted the opera arias, says: ‘People with hearing impairments have a heightened sense of body language and facial expressions. In addition to sensing the music’s vibrations, they can also enjoy music by watching the performers. Opera is such an expressive art form, and therefore it is feasible to make opera accessible to the deaf.

Louw invited Raeesa Mhlongo (24) onto the stage to stand near him with her hand on his throat so that she could experience the strong vibrations of an opera singer’s voice. ‘While Stéfan sang Freunde das leben ist lebenswert! from Franz Lehár’s opera, Giuditta, the audience witnessed a touching moment,’ says Jopie Koen, the Pierneef Theatre’s owner. ‘It was heartwarmingly beautiful, and I had to wipe away a few tears throughout the aria.’

After the concert, Mhlongo said, using sign language:

‘It was a wonderful experience! I want to thank Stéfan for what he did tonight for deaf people. I, and the other deaf people here tonight, have never experienced anything like this before! We are so happy!’

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