What's Opera, Doc?

December 9, 2015 • Posted in blindness, Braille, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, technology for people who are blind, Uncategorized by

The opera Bel Canto (based on Ann Patchett’s novel by the same name) had its world Premiere at Chicago’s Lyric Opera Monday night, and I’m going to tomorrow night’s performance. It will be the first time ever that I’ve attended an opera.

When I was a kid, the only opera I knew was the Merrie Melodies cartoon one. you know, the one where Strauss music follows Viking Elmer Fudd as he bellows “Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!” and chases Bugs Bunny? It still makes me smile, just thinking about it.

I ditched a day of high school for the movie premiere of The Who’s Tommy, and I played the double-album to Jesus Christ Superstar at high volume in my basement bedroom, but I never did see a rock opera live on stage. Opera was not on my radar in college, and after I lost my sight I figured that with all the over-the-top costumes and staging and lyrics in foreign languages, opera would be forever off my list. But then came a sequence of events more outlandish than most opera plots:

  1. Ann Patchett, one of my favorite authors and a woman who didn’t know a thing about opera before, came out with a bestseller with a world-renowned soprano as the main character.
  2. Mike and I moved to Chicago.
  3. Real-life renowned soprano Renee Fleming signed on as the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s creative consultant.
  4. Ms. Fleming saw to it that the Lyric obtain rights to the novel Bel Canto.
  5. And now, tomorrow night, this blind woman will debut in the Lyric’s audience.

The Lyric Opera’s trailer for Bel Canto

I’ve been preparing for my debut ever since I heard that the opera Bel Canto would be opening here this year. I started by rereading the book, then I went to the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago with friends a few weeks ago to hear Ann Patchett and Renee Fleming talk about the making of the opera, and then last week I went to the Lyric with a friend to hear the men behind-the-scenes give a panel about all the work involved in developing a new opera for the stage. Thanks to them, I now know what a “librettist” does.

Still, I wasn’t sure I’d attend the opera. Tickets can be pricey, and not only would I miss out on the costumes and the staging, but without being able to read the subtitles (this opera is sung in nine, count them, nine different languages) I wouldn’t understand most of the dialogue. I’m pretty game for trying new things. Experience has shown me, however, that at times overreaching can leave me feeling worse about my blindness than staying home. Maybe going to an opera would be an overreach.

Eyebrows up! My positive experiences with other Chicago cultural institutions in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year spurred me on. I wrote Nora O’Malley, Facility Operations Manager for the Lyric Opera of Chicago with my questions about accessibility — namely, the subtitles. “I am guessing it is unconventional to ask for the libretto of a brand new opera ahead of time,” I wrote. “But if I promised not to share it with anyone else, might you find a way to email it to me before the opera? That way I could use my talking computer to read it before I come…”

Nora wrote back write away. Turns out she remembered me from a talk I’d given in September at Greater Together, a cultural accessibility summit here in Chicago. “A Word version of the program is attached,” she wrote. “We’ll also have Braille programs available if you’re interested.” She asked where I’d be sitting and said they’d find a way to accommodate my Seeing Eye dog Whitney if I bring her. “If you do plan on bringing her, you can notify me via email, call me or simply ask for the House Manager when you arrive and we’ll make it work.” The program she attached outlines the plot, and before I head to the Civic Opera House I’ll read through it to see how the libretto (did I mention I know what that word means now?) might differ from the original book version

As for the subtitles, turns out I may be able to hear them at tomorrow night’s performance. “Lastly, the December 10th performance of Bel Canto is our Audio Described performance,” Nora wrote. “Would you be interested in listening in?” I am! I will! Time to dig out my ball gown and opera-length gloves – I’m off to the opera.

Cheryl On December 9, 2015 at 6:42 pm

Is this an evening for the blue velvet? Enjoy! It sounds like a wonderful night at the opera!

bethfinke On December 9, 2015 at 7:49 pm

Nope –I’m saving that for a certain party on December 17…


silvermansharon On December 9, 2015 at 6:45 pm

Wonderful!!! Beth, I am an opera lover and even sang in the opera at college (Indiana University). I hope you enjoy the evening and huge kudos for giving it a try. Eager to hear your comments about it later.

Sharon Silverman

bethfinke On December 9, 2015 at 7:48 pm

Well, this begs the question — you wrote an essay for our memoir-writing class about learning to play piano –can you sing and play at the same time?


Leslie Hamric On December 9, 2015 at 6:58 pm

Wow! That’s awesome! Would you please give me the name and email address of this woman that you talk to? I’ve been to lyric Opera before and as you remember, I am a cellist. But I did not know that they offered braylle programs or audio description. It’s also helpful to know that they would accommodate your dog, I am in the same boat now. My dog is a female black lab from guiding eyes. She’s fabulous! And we are going on eight months together.

Sent from my iPhone


bethfinke On December 9, 2015 at 7:36 pm

Happy to help -you can find all the info you need at the Lyric’s accessibility page:


Braille programs may be borrowed from their main floor coat check for the 8 operas in their Subscription Season,guide dogs are welcome (they request you let them know when booking your tickets(, and audio-described performances are scheduled for each production on specific dates that you’ll find at the link above.


Kirk Pickerel On December 9, 2015 at 7:28 pm

Wow! What a treat this is likely to be. I am thrilled that this worked out so well for you. I hope you will write a follow up on your experience at the opera! And remember, don’t leave until the “weight challenged person warbles!”

bethfinke On December 9, 2015 at 7:38 pm

Aha! A new definition of www = weight-challenged woman warbles.


Shelley On December 9, 2015 at 9:27 pm

It’s no joke: you really CAN wear your evening gown and gloves to the opera. One of the few formal-friendly environments still going today.

bethfinke On December 10, 2015 at 9:16 am

That really was meant to be a joke at the end about the ballgown, so thanks for letting me know, Shelley. I honestly thought dressing up for the opera was a thing of the past. Gee, now in addition to studying the playbill this morning, I may have to decide which 70’s bridesmaid dress to resuscitate for the show.


John Simonds On December 9, 2015 at 9:53 pm

Beth..I only read Bel Canto last year and I, like you loved it to death. I too hope to attend the opera. John

bethfinke On December 10, 2015 at 9:17 am

Oh, John I hope you do go –we can share notes afterwards.


Ellen Willett On December 9, 2015 at 10:03 pm

Nice work Beth in asking how to get the experience you want, and nice work Nora for making it possible! So glad that the Lyric is committed to serving their Chicago audience in all of its variety!

bethfinke On December 10, 2015 at 9:18 am

Yes. Brava, Nora! Bravo, Lyric!


The Empty Pen On December 9, 2015 at 10:51 pm

I hope you’ll give us your review!

bethfinke On December 10, 2015 at 9:19 am

Thanks, I hope to do so. May take a while to get it written and posted — I imagine it will take me days just to come down from all the excitement.


Regan Burke On December 9, 2015 at 10:53 pm

OMG. You’ve turned yourself into a Bel Canto scholar! I’m so excited for you. I can’t wait to hear about it.

bethfinke On December 10, 2015 at 9:21 am

Thanks, Regan. Great fun running into you (gee, probably not a phrase that a blind woman should use lightly) at the Harold Washington Library Center event…


Sheila A. Donovan On December 10, 2015 at 11:31 am

Wow, Beth, you went all out to educate yourself about this opera. Hope that it fulfills you!

bethfinke On December 10, 2015 at 12:20 pm

You know, in many ways it already has. Just preparing for it has been fun, and a good friend who has been to the opera before and also adores Ann Patchett is coming along, so we’ll have a lot to talk about.


Marilee On December 10, 2015 at 3:20 pm

How exciting for you!!! I cannot wait to for your review!

bethfinke On December 11, 2015 at 1:57 am

Just got home. Review coming soon….stay tuned!


Bethsclasses On December 11, 2015 at 5:30 pm

I want to go to the Opera too!

bethfinke On December 11, 2015 at 6:46 pm

To hear the bombastic music? Watch the drama unfold on stage? Or to have an excuse to don opera gloves and an over-the-top ballgown?! Hmm. Maybe all of the above.


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