Laurie Rubin is an internationally celebrated mezzo-soprano who happens to be blind. Growing up blind, Laurie Rubin often wondered what it was like to fit in. Midsentence she might discover that her “friends” had quietly slipped away. And while they bopped to pop, Laurie, with perfect pitch, was mesmerized by opera and was singing publicly by age 12. Even though she was happy, traveled, learned to water and snow ski, played music, and did normal kid stuff, her mother’s best friend expressed pity for their lot. When Laurie finally did find her crowd in the music world, an opera director would not cast her for fear she would fall off the stage.
A lifetime of unintentional discrimination—of assumptions being made about what she could and could not do—and a child’s innocent question that became the book’s title, prompted Laurie to write about her life. We all have traits that make us something other than “normal,” Rubin believes, but for the strong and persistent dreams can overcome any barrier. In her new memoir, Do You Dream in Color?, she explores the biases and fears we all harbor about those we perceive to be different within a life-story rich in detail an inspiration.
What woman, besides your mom or grandmother, do you find inspirational?
Barbra Streisand was always one of my biggest heroines. When I was growing up, my mother played her music for me in the car, and I just loved the richness and emotion in her voice. “Memory” from the musical “Cats” was the very first song I sang in my voice lessons at age 10 because I had loved Barbra’s rendition of it so much. Beyond Barbra’s singing, I admire that she was a director when it was almost unheard of for women to direct films, that she was a gifted actress, a mother, and a spokesperson for gay rights.
I also loved that she embraced her Jewish identity, playing many Jewish characters in movies at a time when being Jewish was also not as widely accepted by society. She never seemed to balk at the things that made her different, and I love that she’s had such a multifaceted career. As an author, co-song writer, singer, actress, motivational speaker, and even jewelry designer, I really admire those who have had careers that have encompassed many facets of who they are successfully. I’ve been told since I was a child that I look like Barbra Streisand, and I am proud that she is the celebrity people compare me too.
When did you realize you were musically gifted?
I’ve always had an affinity for music. When I was a very young child, I remember my dad playing classical music on his new stereo because at the time, classical orchestral music showcased the sound of great speakers the best. I was drawn to classical music. When my grandparents listened to music, they often listened to opera, so I was exposed to it at an early age, and that is when I started to experiment with my pipes for singing. I used to emulate the sounds I heard the sopranos making when they’d sing. My grandparents were amused and impressed, and suggested that I take voice lessons.
For years, I took piano lessons because it seemed as though it was the default for kids. I loved the music I was supposed to be learning, but didn’t feel the desire to practice piano. It just wasn’t my instrument. My piano teacher also noticed that I had a particular affinity for singing, harmonizing with the melodies she’d play for me, and she suggested to my mother that I switch to voice lessons.
In the meantime, my mother really loved the music of Kenny Loggins, and she met him in the butcher section of a market near our house in Encino, and near a house that Kenny owned at the time. My mom told Kenny that I loved listening to his music in the car with her, and he was touched that a four year old blind girl was loving his music. He invited us backstage at his next concert in LA. I remember being fascinated by certain things, like how he could make harmonies with himself.
At age 4, I started taking two tape recorders, recording my voice with one of them, and then playing my voice back and recording on a second recorder until I had created several tracks of my own voice in harmony with itself.
Of all the different musical genres, what was it about opera that attracted you?
When I started singing, I started in pop as that seemed to be the default for kids of my generation. When I saw “Phantom of the Opera” at age 12, that’s when I realized I wanted to sing opera. The show itself is a musical, but the style of singing is very operatic, and you are thrust back into 19th Century Paris, and the setting is the Paris Opera House. I told my voice teacher I wanted to sing the leading role of Christine, so I started learning her songs. My teacher who was a Juilliard alum in opera, was thrilled that I seemed to show some potential in classical singing, and she moved me into classical repertoire when I was 12.
This coincided with middle school, a particularly difficult time in my life. I had just started at the college prep school my brother had just graduated from, and I was the first and only blind student there. I felt very isolated as the other kids had never met another blind kid before, and I also didn’t look very cool because I had a huge laptop computer (this was the early 90’s), a cane that I wore in a pouch every day on this belt over my jeans, a key to my locker hooked to a keychain on that same belt, so I sort of looked a little unapproachable to most people.
I found many of my friends in musical activities I’d do outside of school. I joined the All-State Honor Choir in 9th grade which is made up of the best high school singers from all over the state. When I was in choir, kids liked me because they could relate to me through the music we shared together. We all became friends through the music in spite of our ethnic, class, Race, and any other differences.
I found this same special bond with kids when I went to the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, a summer camp-like program for kids to study their instrument with world renowned faculty. We all sat on the Tanglewood lawn in this remote but beautiful part of Massachusetts, listening to the Boston Symphony, and all the world class artists that performed during the summers at Tanglewood, and that was such an amazing part of my education and inspiration towards opera.
Because music had treated me so well in a time when I felt so isolated, I decided to devote my life to it, and I went to Oberlin College and Conservatory where I studied classical voice. I then went onto Yale Opera, and then lived in NYC for many years to pursue my career in classical music. Oberlin was the first place where I felt celebrated for my blindness. I think that really made a huge difference for my self esteem, because for the first time, I felt cool in a school setting on a daily basis, and that feeling was so new to me.
What’s your favorite piece of music that you have performed?
Oh, there are so many. What first came to mind was an opera by the composer Francis Poulenc called “La Voix Humaine,” which takes place in Paris in the 1930’s in a woman’s apartment. The entire opera is about a conversation in real time she’s having with her lover who tells her midway through the call that he has left her to marry someone else. The piece is completely tragic, and captures all of the worst fears we have of abandonment, the utmost loneliness, and fear of what’s ahead.
The neat thing about the opera is that I am alone on stage while performing, and the only other character is a telephone which rings now and then when she gets cut off, and the person playing this role always has to make the audience hear what her lover on the other end must be saying to her. There are so many vocal colors and facial expressions I had to convey, and it was one of the most rewarding, viscerally human experiences I’ve ever had on stage. I also think it shows my vocal range.
Another piece I love singing is one that was written for me by the Israeli composer, Noam Sivan called “In the Mountains of Jerusalem.” The poetry is by the late Israeli poet, Leah Goldberg. These are also about isolation and longing, frustration with being disconnected from some sort of life experience. There are four pieces in this set, and each one is like a little opera in itself, the range of emotions and the vocal range in the song are both really dynamic. It is always great when a composer writes something for a specific singer because they can capitalize on the vocal and artistic characteristics unique to the individual performer. Even though I’m a mezzo-soprano, and a specific vocal range is attributed to my voice type, Noam discovered that I have a particular affinity for singing with emotion in the upper register which may almost put me in the soprano category, but he featured both my low and high ranges, making the piece very fulfilling for me to sing.
Who do you want to work with? What opera would you love to perform that you have not yet already?
I would love to sing with Placido Domingo. I just adore his voice. It just oozes emotion. It’s like eating a velvety piece of chocolate cake. I would also love to work with the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas because he is one of the most talented conductors out there, and he has gotten the orchestra to sound absolutely incredible. I’ve also always wanted to work with the director Peter Sellers because his productions are so innovative, and I had the impression that he would really see my blindness as an interesting trait to incorporate into an operatic role. I also feel the same way about Julie Taymor who also happens to be an Oberlin alum. I actually voiced this to her when I met her briefly at a talk she gave at the Lincoln Center Film Festival. I hope we do get to work together because she is so brilliant, and is also really good at getting the best artistry out of her actors. In terms of an opera I’d love to sing which I have never done before, anything by Claudio Monteverdi which is very early Baroque, and is just incredibly sensual music.
What inspired you to write Do You Dream In Color?
I was inspired to write my book because I wanted to give people insight into just how rich and fulfilling a life I have as a blind person as many people sadly assume my life is isolated, lonely, and lacking in the normal joys and expectations most women have, such as being in a wonderful relationship, having children, having a successful career, etc. I wanted the reader to forget about the blindness, and just to experience a universal, relatable story about challenges, rewards, obstacles, and successes, while also taking a colorful journey with me through my own personal adventures.
I wanted to use the words “dream” and “color” in the same sentence because I wanted to challenge people to think past their limitations, to see their weaknesses as their greatest strengths. Some might think that dreaming in color is a paradox for a blind person, but the truth is that I do dream big, and that I have a colorful life. I think that people who forget to dream because they are so scared to rid themselves of their own self-imposed limitations just need a push in the right direction. They need to hear that others are doing it, whether we’re blind, faced with some other health challenge, unhappy with some sort of physical or other trait, or otherwise fearful. I hope that my story can help others, and I hope I also change people’s perspectives on blindness in the process.
Your story is so inspiring – how have you gone about spreading your message and why is it important to you?
I have gone about spreading my message mostly via my concerts and some motivational speaking engagements. In my concerts, I often tell stories from my life which pertain to the pieces I’m about to sing because I always go on stage thinking that there is someone in that audience who needs some lifting up, some encouragement, or else just a fun evening to let their hair down. When I bring my point home with the music, it really gives my message the emotional context it needs for each individual person with his or her own unique story.
It is so important for me to share my story because I know that we all feel like the underdog at times, but we all deserve to achieve the greatest success, and to claim the fulfilling life we deserve. I think that being blind has given me perspective on how it feels to be treated differently. I feel very strongly that difference should be treated as a positive thing, not a negative one, and yet people are so focused on the traits they don’t like about themselves. Often, these insecurities stand in the way of people’s goals, and I feel that people need to find the skill sets, the things they are best at to help them get where they need to be.
I also believe that many people do not see themselves as beautiful. It is so important to feel beautiful which I did not for so many years. It’s when I started to feel beautiful, happy with who I am that I started to have more success, and that is why my partner Jenny and I are in the midst of writing an album with the title track, “The Girl I Am,” about those times when we have been brought down, and how we need to rise above it and remember the people we are, and how wonderful that is. We’ve performed this song for a variety of audiences, most recently a high school girls choir in Rock Springs Wyoming. All the girls in the room were sobbing, and they told us that the music and our words gave them hope in a time when they feel so insecure about who they are. That is who we want to reach, the teens and young adults who need to know that life gets better as long as they remain truthful to who they are.
How did you get into jewelry design?
In 2006, I was living in NYC, and had been doing so for about a year and a half. I was trying to find my way, not only in music, but in general. Job opportunities seemed limited to a blind person because there was little trust from those out in the work force that we were equally contributing and valuable members of society as sighted people. I found that more and more as I interviewed for various jobs, and tried to get work even as a private voice teacher.
In the spring of that year, my mother’s friend was visiting NYC, and when I gave her a hug, I happened to notice a bracelet she was wearing. She told me she had made it herself, and that she thought of me when she was taking the jewelry making class because she used her sense of touch more than her sight. It was so nice to hear someone say that jewelry making was something accessible to me that I was inspired to start taking jewelry making lessons, and I asked the private instructor for the Jewish Community Center’s beading and wire wrapping classes to give me private lessons so as to show me hands on the techniques I would need.
This opened up a world of artistic explosion for me. I’ve always loved jewelry, and now I could create my own styles. I would go to bead stores for hours, and just listen to the beads clinking against each other, feeling the different textures, being told about the amazing colors of each strand of stones. I loved the idea of making unique statements by juxtaposing unusual texture, color, and shape contrasts. That same friend of my mother’s who had recommended that I take jewelry making classes hosted my first showing at her house in Santa Barbara, and I’ve since had my pieces in various boutiques around LA and NYC, as well as having my own online site for my jewelry: TheRLook.com.
Any advice for ladies who are just starting out in a musical career?
I would tell ladies who are just starting a musical career to trust their mentors. Never believe what the nay-sayers say. Those people don’t understand us, so we need to find those who get why we’re unique, and why we have something special to say in our music or art.
I would also tell them to always know who they are as artists, and what they are trying to convey. Never try to emulate another artist, but know what makes them special as individuals.
Finally, I’d tell them to always be kind people, and to be compassionate. I’ve met so many people in my career who are so lonely because they forgot to take the time to get to know other people and their stories. I always find that putting community and family first will help make for a rich and well-rounded happy life.
If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area you can see Laurie Rubin perform this weekend at Ohlone College:
Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 8:00pm
Jackson Theatre, Smith Center at Ohlone College
General Admission $20
Seniors, Staff, Students $18
Youth 12 & under $15
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