An Interview with Opera Singer Laurie Rubin
Here’s how internationally celebrated mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin’s memoir begins: “It was 10:15 on Sunday morning, and I was making good time. I had forty-five minutes to get from my apartment … to Merkin Concert Hall. … My bag, with makeup for touch-ups, a snack to eat between the dress rehearsal and the concert, and two bottles of water was already packed.” And she’s off, saying goodbye to her partner and her dog, then hailing a cab and telling the driver to keep the change. The title of the memoir is “Do You Dream in Color?” but the subtitle is more telling: “Insights From a Girl Without Sight.” Now add that 33-year-old Rubin, who’s been blind since birth, is also a jewelry designer (The LR Look) and a skier. The memoir (Seven Stories Press) is out this October in conjunction with another major tour Rubin is making in the states — The Kennedy Center on Oct. 22, Bargemusic on Oct. 25 and the American Jewish University in Los Angeles on Nov. 6. For the last three years, Hawaii has been her home — it’s where her partner Jenny comes from and where Rubin feels wonderfully comfortable, a place that’s open and relaxed.
Hers is a remarkable story and would be even if she did not have a disability, though it was her sense of being perceived as a blind person that prompted her to write the memoir a few years ago. She was living then on the Upper West Side, not far from Lincoln Center (she grew up in Encino, CA) and when she went out she felt that she was being treated like a “delicate flower,” even though she had a guide dog and was obviously making her way around pretty well. “People addressed me in the third person,” she says. And at auditions, many seemed unable to see past her blindness. They would say things like “I so admire you … for getting out of bed.” She felt there was a strong need to address such perceptions. And to signal the Cinderella theme of her own life, as she moved from isolation as a student in middle school to joy, doing what she wanted in music. Not incidentally, Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”) became a favorite to perform.
She knew early on that music would be her calling, though she thanks her parents for playing classical music on their stereo and her grandparents who introduced her to opera. In elementary school, in a special school for the blind, she had a beloved teacher who would give children instruments to hold and listen to. She fell in love with winds and brass (the oboe, the clarinet and Oh! that primal French horn.) She was, she confesses with a laugh, a “bad piano student.” It was seeing “Phantom of the Opera,” however, which she found mesmerizing, that confirmed for her true instrument — voice. At Oberlin, where she went to college, she had the good fortune to study with Richard Miller, a fantastic vocal teacher, and then at Yale, in the opera program. Her voice, rich and luxuriant, has been described as “darkly complex and mysteriously soulful,” by, among others, The New York Times.
Of course, Rubin is more than a role model. She’s a marvelously feisty enthusiast. When asked about a challenging experience she doesn’t miss a beat: it was performing Francis Poulenc’s “La Vois Humaine” (“The Human Voice”), a one-act, 45-minute, one-person opera about a woman on the telephone with her lover, who’s blowing her off to marry someone else. Doing this, imagining a phone conversation, was extremely difficult. But obviously she loved the challenge. And rose to the occasion.
In Hawaii with her partner, who is a musician, she’s working on a Tanglewood- or Interlochen-type project to bring the performing arts to a greater number of young people, especially those who live in depressed areas. Called “Ohana Arts” — and now in its third season, the project brings New York City talent to Hawaii. She’s especially interested as well in shoring up the financially insecure symphony orchestra. And she’s working on a curriculum for students at all grade levels and for human resource personnel on how better to engage with the blind.
“Do You Dream in Color?” takes its title from Bruce Adolphe’s composition of the same name for which she wrote the lyrics. The text appears at the end of the memoir. Here are some of the closing words: “You imagine my world/a dark place./You are afraid to know/that I walk the streets of New York with purpose./That I come home to a family I have cultivated,/ that my life is full of dreams,/and my dreams are full of colors,/and my dreams are real,/because they come true every day.” Dr. Pola Rosen, publisher of Education Update, says that Rubin’s memoir “should be required reading” … that it will “enlighten teachers to the sensitivity needed for students who are ‘different.’” Students are often “so preoccupied with themselves,” Dr. Rosen says, “with fitting in,” that they never stop to think about what they can do to help other students fit in.” Rubin’s determination “should prove inspiring for all readers and remind us of how we unintentionally may discount or dismiss those who are different.” #
Laurie Rubin, a graduate of Yale, is the author of ‘Do You Dream in Color? Insights From a Girl Without Sight’ published by Seven Stories Press, 2012: 400 pp.