Lyric Opera of Chicago to Use New Accessible Technology in its 2023-24 Season

By Afton Wooten

The Lyric Opera of Chicago announced the 2023-24 season will launch the SoundShirt as part of its accessibility initiative.

The season-long pilot program brings wearable technology to the opera house for the first time. The SoundShirt invented and produced by London-based CuteCircuit, allows wearers to better interpret the unique qualities of live opera and musical-theater performances.

Wearers experience the feeling of music rendered on their upper body through a process known as haptic actuation. Microphones capture the orchestra and artists’ sound and transform it into a digital feed. Computer software then transforms this closed-circuit audio feed into touch data that is then broadcast wirelessly to the SoundShirts in real-time with the music and voices. Different instruments and voices map to different locations across the body and sleeves of the garment, creating a deepened multisensory experience for operagoers.

The SoundShirt program is presented in partnership with the City of Chicago’s Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD). Rachel Arfa, the first deaf commissioner of MOPD, tested the technology last season. She said in a press release, “the SoundShirt gave me access to the sound of the performance in a way I have never experienced before, and it honestly made my experience at Lyric even more richly satisfying.” Chicago has long been known for its embrace of innovation and for its spirit of inclusiveness, so it is fitting that this technology is being piloted by one of our city’s — and the world’s — most important cultural institutions.”

The first performance to use the SoundShirts is Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” on Oct. 1. A limited number of SoundShirts will be available at selected performances of each opera throughout the season. Performances with the SoundShirt options include “Jenůfa,” Nov. 12 at 2 pm; “The Daughter of the Regiment,” Nov. 16 at 2 pm; “Cinderella,” Jan. 21 at 2 pm; “Champion” Jan. 31 at 2 pm and Feb. 3 at 7:30 pm; and “Aida,” March 17 at 2 pm.

The SoundShirt performance dates also feature core accessibility services such as audio description or American Sign Language interpretation.