From accessibility to participation- InclusivOpera and beyond. By Elena di Giovanni

Elena Di Giovanni, Coordinator if the InclusivOpera project – Macerata Opera Festival

For nearly twenty years now, in my work as teacher and researcher, I have never ceased to believe that theory and practice need to go hand in hand in all spheres and contexts, and not lose sight of one another.

Experimentation aimed at improving accessibility to film and live performance for people with sensory disabilities has its roots, in my experience, in research: in 2007 I joined a European project designed to monitor and increase accessibility to European media, especially television. The project envisaged a series of experimental activities as well as interaction with colleagues and fellow professionals from various countries, and it was this that stimulated me to combine my newly acquired knowledge with what I had learnt from my previous experience, in particular with the Macerata Opera Festival. My determination to put theoretical amd methodological considerations into practice resulted in the first two events at Macerata to be accessible to the blind and visually impaired: performances of La Traviata and Madama Butterfly with audio description. The Friends of the Macerata branch of the Italian Union for the Blind, actively involved as they were in this initial venture right from the earliest stages, sent an official note of thanks to the local press for having been able “to see the opera for the first time”.

From 2009 onwards we have continued to experiment without interruption: further performances and events have followed; the project has expanded with the involvement of blind people and their caregivers from all over Italy.

Since 2013, the live performances with audio description are preceded by free tactile itineraries for the blind and their carers, and since 2014 these programmes have been theme-based: music and musical instruments, the costume shop and stage costumes, the stage and  stage sets. 2014 also saw the start of a tourist itinerary for the blind and visually impaired, in association with the  Museo Statale Tattile Omero di Ancona. For the past three years, the Macerata Opera Festival has also welcomed deaf people and their companions, with guided tours in Italian sign language, assisted listening aids, and surtitles.

One of the founding principles of this project, known officially as InclusivOpera since 2016, is that everyone should be involved, not just in making use of the itineraries, tours and accessible services, but in planning and creating them: artists and theatre technicians, front of house staff, accessibilitystaff, university students, but especially the people with visual or hearing disabilities who can act as valuable consultants, constant sources of information, audio description editors, and, in recent years, guides for the tours and itineraries which are now fully multisensory. Indeed, the multisensory nature of these ventures, and the participation of all concerned, has shifted the axis of the InclusivOpera project in an entirely natural way from accessibility to inclusion. And “inclusion” is the term we like to use today because it is untainted by the slight connotation of privation inherent in “accessibility” and it  inclines positively in the direction of sharing. Inclusion is the crucial final goal of the InclusivOpera project: everybody can not only enjoy a performance but contribute to creating it through the variety of their own distinctive, valuable skills.

Inclusion is allied to another key concept: participation. For a cultural and artistic experience to be truly inclusive the participation of everybody is required. At the Macerata Opera Festival, everyone takes part in InclusivOpera: the box office personnel, the technicians, the musicians, the stage managers, the singers and chorus masters, all get involved, taking part in the inclusive programmes together with those with sensory disabilities. For their part, the people with disabilities play an active role by involving friends and family, many of whom might not have approached the world of opera otherwise. Participation has proved a winning formula; everyone feels fulfilled and the memories it leaves are always positive.

So we can sum up by saying that accessibility leads to inclusion, inclusion implies participation, and participation provides general access to knowledge and experience, to the benefit of all.

InclusivOpera has been responsible for three research projects at Macerata University (doctoral and post-doctoral) as well as numerous scientific publications and a further four inclusive projects in theatres in Italy and Europe. It  has led to the training of  young experts, now working as ambassadors to promote accessibility in Italy and the USA.

In 2019 InclusivOpera had over 300 participants, and this year, despite the Covid emergency, logistical difficulties and restricted places, a good 145. The hope for all of us is that opera, like art, can be more and more inclusive and beget positive experiences of sharing and participation.