By John Jurgensen
Opera singer Laurie Rubin has performed on stages at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. But because she is blind (and has been since birth), some music directors have avoided working with her, she says–they worried she wouldn’t learn her parts fast enough or, worse, that she would tumble into the orchestra pit. In part to lay out the facts about herself–and perhaps market her disability as a professional asset–she has published a memoir, “Do You Dream In Color: Insights From a Girl Without Sight.”
The 33-year-old mezzo-soprano lives in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she co-founded a performing arts school and festival, Ohana Arts, with her life partner, Jennifer Taira, a clarinetist and pianist. During an ongoing tour that combines recitals and book readings, Rubin talked about reading music in braille, the challenges facing a blind performer, and the ’70s and ’80s pop star who was instrumental in her musical life.
It was a pleasant surprise to find out that Kenny Loggins played a personal role in getting you into music.
He trained my ear. I was around four years old and my mother kept playing his music for me in the car. I just got to like his voice. My mom went to the market and in the meat department was Kenny. She told him all this stuff and he invited us to his next concert. We ended up going to many of his concerts and hanging out with his band and his fans backstage. He let us come to the studio when he needed a children’s choir for one of his albums, and he asked me to do a little scat solo on his album. At a very early age I was learning about the recording studio. When I started taking voice lessons, pop music was the default. But when I saw “Phantom of the Opera,” I got into musical theater and classical. It snowballed from there.
The different sections of your book are titled for different colors. How does your perception of color play into your music?
I feel that I understand color, and I don’t know how to explain it. When I sing, the key B flat reminds me of chocolate. The key A major I think of as being like the afternoon. Color has played a big part in my understanding of what music looks like.
You had trouble fitting in at regular school, but that started to change when you went to study music at Tanglewood.
Tanglewood ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. It’s funny, because once I sang, everyone thought of me differently. They thought, if she can sing, she must be human. Once we sing, we’re all exposed. We’re all getting critiqued in these master classes.
Most people understand the way blind people use braille to read, but how does it work with musical notation?
There is braille notation, but I don’t tend to use it. I came to braille music very late. The thing that I don’t like is that it’s so linear, and you’re taking in everything piecemeal. A sighted person can look at a whole score and they can see where it’s going. When you’re looking at braille music, it’s note by note by note. It just gives me the willies. It’s like putting thread through a needle. It’s painstaking. I do most everything by ear.
How do you navigate the stage during an opera performance, when you need to hit specific marks?
There are things I use all the time, such as squaring off or putting my back to something and hitting a landmark by walking straight. Those things I use out in the real world, too. Sometimes I count steps, especially if there are no other landmarks to use. In one opera I did recently ["La Voix Humaine" of "The Human Voice" by Francis Poulenc], there were three dancers on stage holding lights. Because I can see light, I oriented myself based on where they were shining the lights.
How do you follow the signals of the conductors you work with?
When I worked with John Williams, he was fantastic, because he would always take deep breaths while conducting. Most won’t admit to this, but conductors grunt when a crescendo comes. I listen for things like that. The way I keep the beat is that I can feel the wind of their arms moving, or you hear their clothes moving. But the main thing you follow is the orchestra. The crutch that some sighted people have is that they look too much at the conductor and they’re not engaging with the audience.
They say that being deprived of one sense heightens the remaining senses. Do you think that’s been a factor in your musical talent?
I just did a study at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute and I went into an MRI machine. They were shocked when they found that my visual cortex had developed highly with my hearing, and usually those parts of the brain are separate. Instead of atrophying, my visual cortex actually started processing my hearing information.
How did you get involved with that study?
Bruce Adolphe, the man who wrote the title track of my CD ["Do You Dream in Color"], has done some musical projects with the scientist Antonio Damasio, who founded the Brain and Creativity Center. Bruce suggested they do a study catered to my blindness.
You talk a lot about the professional challenges of being blind. But do you think that it has helped you, in that it makes you unique?
The manager I have now finally saw that. She said, “When I’m looking for people to be on my roster, I’m not just looking for someone with a good voice, I’m looking for someone with a story, because that will communicate more to audiences.” The director who did the Human Voice opera, he knows a zillion and one mezzos. But I think he liked the vulnerability aspect of the blindness. I prefer not to think of it that way, but that’s my God’s honest guess. I’ve always said to people that sometimes I think that blindness has been my greatest gift, because it’s made me different. Even if I’ve had to face a little more adversity because of it.
Like any sighted opera singer, you face the challenge of making a living. What’s the outlook for young musicians?
I hate to say it, but the audience is dwindling. Part of the problem is that it’s so antiquated. You see these gigantic 18th century sets, and people nowadays don’t relate to it as much. So you see a lot of opera companies folding. The ones doing really well are doing 21st century forward-thinking productions of old operas, and making them relevant to our time. At the same time, it forces you to be an entrepreneur. Jenny and I stared the Ohana Arts program. It’s for ages 8 to 18. There are intensive classes in the morning in ballet and jazz and acting and classical voice technique. And in the afternoon they put on a production. We’re doing “Footloose,” speaking of Kenny.
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