Sydney Opera House

Hansel and Gretel with shadow interpreters

Opera Australia’s Oz Opera presents Hansel and Gretel with Auslan Shadow Interpreters

Oz Opera’s Schools Company, which pioneered the use of fully-integrated Auslan interpreters in its Sid the Serpent production last year, has been using them again in director Dean Bryant’s Hansel and Gretel production for the Company, which is running in Victorian schools until next month.

To help raise awareness of the National Week of Deaf People in October, Oz Opera is also presenting a week of by-demand performances ofHansel and Gretel for schools in the Deaf community, from 19-23 September. Thanks to the generous support of Principal Sponsor Australia Post and in association with Deaf Children Australia, the week will culminate in a special Deaf Community Day performance of Hansel and Gretel on Saturday 24 September, at Melbourne's Federation Square.

OA Senior Resident Director, Matthew Barclay, who directed the groundbreaking Sid the Serpent production, says Auslan interpreters Maxine Buxton and Kirri Dangerfield have “shadowed” both Schools Company productions, originally approaching the Company with a view to breaking the traditional boundaries of having interpreters on the sides of the performing area. “It’s very difficult for children to get information from the sides of the stage while the story is being told centre stage,” he says.

According to Buxton and Dangerfield, who have worked with progressive theatre companies that incorporated them into the action, shadow interpreting in opera also aims to convey the emotional palette of the music. This is done through facial expression, body language and speed of interpreting; when the music for a scene is scary, for example, the interpreters’ bodies and facial expressions reflect it.

Barclay points out that education is a great platform for experimentation, as the experience of opera has not yet been set in stone for young children. “You can take kids somewhere unexpected, which would be more difficult with a mainstage audience.”

During rehearsals he worked on finding ways of sharing the focus between the interpreters and the cast. “When directing opera, a golden rule is that your eye goes in the direction of movement – whoever is moving on stage, is attracting the audience’s attention. If there’s movement all over the place, it can be quite confusing.” For Barclay, the challenge was therefore to find ways to tell the story visually while putting the interpreters inside the frame.

To support this, the interpreters’ costumes and make-up were similar to the cast’s. “They supported and reinforced what the characters were doing. They were never distracting or weakening or undermining of the cast. Interpreters are after all storytellers, and both Kirri and Maxine are extremely talented storytellers.”

Not that incorporating the interpreters was without its challenges. “The production became more complicated and we had to change the way in which we placed people on stage,” Barclay says. “It basically became a different show and performers had to learn to be very flexible. But they relished the opportunity. These performances remind us all of the ultimate aim of theatre, which is to communicate with people; to take them on a journey and leave a bit of ourselves with them.”

“Feedback from deaf and hard of hearing children and their teachers has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Oz Opera Manager Sandra Willis. “They love it. Besides being given a fun experience, they’re included, which people with disabilities so often aren’t. Shadow interpreting is an integral part of the show.”

To some, the idea of opera without music might be difficult to conceptualise, but Barclay says: “Over the last 50 years, opera production has developed in leaps and bounds, to the point where visually, opera stories are now being told so compellingly that coming along for this reason alone is worthwhile.”

In its mainstage productions, OA accommodates blind people once or twice a season. Barclay would like to see the same happen for deaf people. “I think it should be just the norm. If the audience is aware of it, and they buy their tickets knowing that there will be interpreters as part of the action, I don’t see why not.”

He foresees that new technology combined with innovative leadership will bring the idea within the realms of possibility. “It is conceivable, for example, that a projection of someone giving Auslan signs could be projected onto the stage, and that hearing impaired audience members could be supplied with glasses that would enable only them to see it.”

Exciting and experimental initiatives that reach OA through its touring and education arm, Oz Opera, have the strong support of Management. Barclay says: “[Artistic Director] Lyndon Terracini has a great sense of adventure and he is always looking for ways to evolve how we present opera so that it draws in a wider audience. That includes people from all cultural backgrounds, and those who have traditionally found opera to be inaccessible due to financial or physical disadvantage.”


Oz Opera’s special Deaf Community Day performance of Hansel and Gretel for deaf and hard of hearing children and their families takes place at 11:00am on Saturday 24 September at Melbourne's Federation Square (entry by gold coin donation). For information and booking, call Peter Folan at Deaf Children Australia on (03) 9539 5348 or email