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OPERA, you might have thought, would be the last art form likely to be appreciated by the deaf and the hard-of-hearing. The English Touring Opera is changing all that, for a thundering aria owes much to the sheer power of the singer's voice, and enough vibration and resonance can enable the deaf to "hear" the performance - if they can get close enough to touch the singer.

At ETO workshops for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, performers almost disappear in a forest of friendly fingers, as eager hands descend on their head, arms and torso. "We get the singers to sing part of an aria, with the deaf people physically feeling their arms, shoulders, heads, so they can feel for themselves where the sound is coming from," explains the ETO's opera signer, Peter Llewellyn-Jones. "Tenors, for example, tend to make more use of their head cavities, while sopranos sing from the tops of their chests."

In general, the reaction is highly positive. "You just feel the singing and relax to enjoy it," explained one participant. "It made me see opera in a new light," said another, neatly turning around a few sensory experiences. "Deaf people are entitled to enjoy theatre as much as hearing people do."

Llewellyn-Jones is one of only two people in the country who can simultaneously translate opera into sign language. "In the theatre," he says, "I rely on hearing what's being said and understanding it - and when I translate, I can be a line behind. But with opera, all interpretation has to be in time with the music - I have to sign while the line's being done." As well as interpreting performances, he presides over pre-performance workshops for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. These workshops, for groups of around 20, are held on the stage where the opera is to take place. They normally feature three singers - a soprano, a tenor, and a bass, baritone or alto, to illustrate the differences between the pitches.

"We start off the session by talking through the plot," explains Llewellyn- Jones. "We give a little bit of background, talk to the people in charge of the backstage area, explain how all the elements of the production work together."

Then comes the laying on of hands. Many "deaf" people actually have some residual hearing and find that they can hear some notes - particularly when the soprano is singing. But the profoundly deaf can also enjoy the session. "It's often a surprise for them to discover where the sound is coming from, and the differences between voices and pitches," says Llewellyn- Jones.

He admits that the idea of promoting opera to the hard- of-hearing is unusual. "Before opera, I'd been signing theatre for years - I wondered if opera wasn't going a bit far," he says. "I thought the first performance would be the last, but deaf people loved it."

The success of the project has led to expansion; the ETO also works in schools with both deaf and hearing children. Over a three-day period, the children produce their own opera: the hearing children play and sing, while the deaf children sign the story.

"Our keyword is accessibility," says Sue Gilder, education manager at the ETO. "A lot of the enjoyment of opera is down to the movement, colour and spectacle, as well as the music. The people we work with love it. One lady said to me, 'I've been deaf since birth, but opera is in my heart.' "

! ETO's spring tour starts on 20 February with 'Rigoletto' and 'Werther' at Sadler's Wells, London. Details of workshops for the hard-of-hearing: 0171 820 1131 (Minicom, 0171 820 1141)