The multi-hyphenate entertainer aims to be an ambassador for her community while defying stereotypes.
For a recent cabaret performance at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s in Studio City, Cristina Jones put together a cheeky medley of songs: “I Can See Clearly Now,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “Jeepers Creepers.” Even the theme song from “Full House” — “Everywhere You Look” — made the list. Her favorite though is “Amazing Grace.” In her mind, whenever she hears that song she changes the lyrics to “T’was blind but still can’t see.”
“I try real hard not to laugh,” she says. “Even at funerals. Even when I’m the one singing it at a funeral.”
In an attempt to make the world a less awkward place for the blind, Jones, aka The Blind Soprano, has been using her talents as an opera singer, performer and teacher to raise awareness of the community.
Hailing from Anaheim, Jones was born with retinopathy of prematurity, an eye condition that eventually leads to blindness in roughly 50,000 people worldwide. For years, Jones’ quality of vision would fluctuate from day-to-day. Then four years ago, her condition worsened and she required surgery to have her eyes removed.
“Before my surgery, I had relied on my light onstage, so afterward I wasn’t sure I could trust myself,” she says. “But everyone has insecurity doing their craft. I had to trust that I know how to sing and move right and I won’t go flopping off the stage.”
Jones is first and foremost a soprano — and a powerful one at that. In addition to cabaret shows, she’s performed all over Southern California and in the U.K. singing operatic works from the likes of Verdi, Mozart and Puccini. (Yes, there’s a Braille system for musical notation, so she doesn’t always have to learn it by ear.) She hopes that performing more regularly will make her a sort of ambassador promoting awareness of the blind community.
And she feels people could benefit from hearing her perspective. Based on her experiences, she finds many sighted people still don’t understand how to behave when encountering someone who is visually impaired.
In the past, Jones has depended on Dwayne, a trusty yellow Labrador guide dog, to keep her out of danger. In her first month with Dwayne, he moved her out of the way of a runaway vehicle that smashed into a nearby car. She was close enough to the collision to feel the rush of wind caused by the crash.
“Your dog just saved your life,” she says a pedestrian told her. “You were standing just where those two cars hit each other.”
That is why it was so discouraging when an employee at a grocery store told her she couldn’t bring Dwayne inside. Even after she assured him that she was blind, he skeptically told her she didn’t look blind.
“People don’t believe us when we say we’re blind because we don’t ‘look’ blind,” she says.
Righting this kind of wrong has guided her as a performer. While she was perfectly OK accepting a background role in the Netflix film “Bird Box,” where vision impairment is a main part of the plot, there was one acting role she turned down on principle.
“They asked me to portray a stereotype and I said ‘no,’” Jones says. “You don’t know how much damage that does to the blind community. It confirms and perpetuates the stereotype of how we’re supposed to look — sunglasses, poking around with a white cane. Because a blind person looks like everybody else.”
Jones also hopes she can bring a new perspective to the world of classical music. She describes the audience for choral music as “sturdy,” but has some tough love for the opera scene.
“Opera has a hoity-toity reputation. It doesn’t bridge the socio-economic gaps or the ability gaps,” she says. “They’re living in the past.”
Aside from a series of upcoming performances, Jones also teaches children at the Academy of Music for the Blind. She also has a podcast in the works called “Connect the Dots,” a utilitarian resource for blind people in the entertainment business. It’s aimed at inspiring more blind people into creative and artistic endeavors.
“I know it sounds hokey,” Jones says, “but my dad always told me, ‘Reach for the stars, even if you can’t see them.’”