She Will Have Music

Laurie Rubin is an international Mezzo-soprano opera singer, a jewelry designer, a poet, and now, a memoirist. She’s also been blind since birth. Despite her wide spectrum of talents, however, others have often seen her blindness rather than her personality and passion. She has overcome countless obstacles and defied all expectations for her to be “limited” throughout her life. When Rubin sings, her confidence and talent shine through those prejudices, and many people can begin to see that this artist transcends limitations.

Her memoir Do You Dream in Color, released in October 2012, is a reflection on Rubin’s life and her realization that while her blindness is physically apparent, everyone has their own quirks that make them different. These differences might hold a person back and cause others to treat him or her differently, but Rubin ultimately expresses that these barriers push people to show their true colors. She is an inspiration for aspiring musicians as well as anyone who has faced discrimination in pursuing their dreams. Her recent interview with Jupiter Index highlights her natural grace and love of music.

Olivia Lin: After reading your memoir, I got this feeling that you understood color perhaps better than most other people. Do you have a favorite color? If so, what is it and (if the explanation could be put into words) why?

Laurie Ruben: First of all, thanks for the very nice compliment. I have to say that my favorite color is red because it's the color I feel portrays my personality the best. Red refuses to fade into the background, and makes a big statement. There is a fiery sense of vitality and life in it and it is both intense and lots of fun. I've always been told red looks great on me because of my fair skin and my naturally dark hair. I think that years of being made to feel as though people expected me to be a meek, uncertain blind person makes me want to wear a color like red because in my opinion, someone who is daring enough to wear red is confident in who she is. Red is also such a great color to wear for a performance because it is so bold and reads well from the stage, so I definitely have an array of red dresses, heels, purses, and jewelry.

What was the most difficult part of the memoir for you to write?

The most difficult part to write about my middle and high school experiences. It’s an universally difficult time in people’s lives, and I wanted to write about it in a way that didn’t seem like I was whiney, complaining, or way too depressing. I think sighted readers will easily relate to my school experiences; discrimination and isolation at that age is something we all face for one reason or another. I’m proud of whom I have become, partially as a result of those experiences, however revisiting them was emotionally difficult, there were definitely tears shed in the process!
It was also hard to write about my partner, Jenny, and how our relationship began. I wanted to portray her in the exact way she'd want to be. We love our significant others so much, and we want to be sure that we give them their proper tribute, in the same way a great piece of art can capture a moment or relationship perfectly.

Was there really any part of your life when you just wanted to give up? If so, how did you keep yourself motivated?

When I was at Yale, I definitely felt like giving up. I had worked so hard to get into this program of 16 people, which is structured so that everyone admitted into it plays a lead role in an opera. I remember being in my dorm room after the cast lists for both operas went up without my name on them, and not knowing what to do. My plan had backfired on me. If I didn't have that lead role under my belt, how would directors in the real world know that I could handle a part in their professional production?
I ended up making a lot of great friends at Yale with whom I am still in touch with today, and I did learn a lot from the fabulous teachers and other musical experiences the program offered. I had a major musical and vocal growth spurt which stood me in good stead for my professional career to follow. It is those things I took away with me, even though I didn't get what I initially expected from my time there.

How has your success on stage changed your life?...From the places you go to the way others treat you?

A character becomes such a big part of me when I prepare for the role, so my roles have changed and influenced my life in a myriad of ways. My first lead was the role of Cenerentola (Cinderella) in the Rossini opera my senior year of college at Oberlin Conservatory. In order to act the part fully, I had relate to her by finding various parts of my own life that seem relevant. Cinderella's being dismissed by her family, and then being valued and loved by the prince made me recall those up and downs in my own life: the times when I felt isolated and lonely in middle and high school, the instances when the kids told me that nobody would want to date me, and then the appreciation and friendship I found in college. I started crying uncontrollably when we were staging the scene in which the fairy godmother-type character transforms me into the beautiful girl at the ball. The director was thrilled because he wanted me to have a strong reaction of joy in this part. When we all realized that my tears went beyond acting, he gave me a hug, and said that revelations like that one are so important to self discovery that comes with owning a character, or finding her inside you.

Another role that had a dramatic affect on me was in a one-woman opera by Francis Poulenc called, "La Voix Humaine" ("The Human Voice.") In this opera, a woman is talking to her lover on the phone for the very last time before he marries someone else the next day. This role forces the singer to grapple with the worst fears we all have, complete and utter desperation and loneliness. It's a place in ourselves we never want to visit. However, in learning the role I found so much emotion inside myself that I never knew existed. Accessing these feelings made me able to sing with more of a dynamic range of colors and primitive human feelings. I also gained so much confidence in delivering a performance in which I was the only character on stage. That achievement gave me confidence in my ability as an artist.

Playing so many different characters with their own unique issues, personalities, and dilemmas makes one a more compassionate person, and makes you see things from so many different points of view. Even if you don't agree with a character, you have to believe that the character is justified in doing what she is doing, and find reasons in yourself for why certain things transpire. I definitely feel that embodying these characters on stage has made me a much more dynamic person because I have not only gotten to live my own life, but I experience the lives of other characters in different times and situations.

I'll give you an example of how being on stage has completely changed people's treatment of me. Shortly after grad school, I auditioned for an international voice competition. I did not make the next round, but I did receive comments from the judges. This one judge in particular who worked for a big opera company told me that he didn't see a career for me in the field of opera. He said that I had a nice enough voice, but that he didn't see how I could compete with sighted people with similar vocal talent. This same man was at my performance of "La Voix Humaine" a couple years later, and he said that he could have sworn that he had heard me before, but couldn't remember the context. He was so complimentary of my performance in this opera, and he called me "a wonderful artist." He was so enthusiastic that he was trying to think of productions for which he could hire me. I couldn't believe this was the same man who said in a very nice way that perhaps I should consider another career just a couple years earlier. I think seeing is believing, and when people actually see me in action on stage, they treat me very differently.

In your memoir, you write about your inspiring interactions with Fredrica von Stade, John Williams, Joan Sutherland and Kenny Loggins. Are there any other musicians with whom you aspire to work or perform?

I would love to sing with Placido Domingo. He has an exquisite voice, and his soul shines through in every note he sings. Not only is he a wonderful musician, but he is just an incredibly visceral, and in-the-moment performer. I would love to sing with him, or to be in an orchestra he is conducting.

A large part of your story is this struggle to be above and beyond others’ expectations; you write about how you are always expected to be not just as good as but better than your sighted peers in order to be considered on equal ground. It is an obviously unfair standard, but do you believe that this forced perfectionism and ultimately helped or hurt you in the long run?

I believe that this standard helped me more than hurt me. I think I definitely took that statement to heart. I resented it of course too. It’s too subjective, and trying to be “better than everyone else” can drive you crazy, and make one seem like a paranoid, neurotic person always trying to please everyone. However, it disciplined me to work hard and strengthen my music learning music muscles. I needed to be easy to work with so people would hire me again. I learned to sing expressively, to access a range of emotions so that I could move the audience. I learned to be compassionate and patient with my colleagues and directors, learned to teach them the best ways to help me on stage without a visual context. I learned how to put on make-up, how to get from point A to Point B independently so that colleagues didn't have to worry about how I'd get to rehearsal, and if I would make it on time. I tried to get inside my colleagues heads to foresee what their worries would be, and find solutions prior to any of these things becoming problems. Of course I am nowhere near perfect, and I have made mistakes. I wasn't always the A student or the most prepared, but I certainly did a lot of extra homework so that when the time came for a rehearsal, a concert, an interview, or what have you, things went smoothly. There has been a lot of trial and error, but in general, it has been a good life lesson for me.

I found the piece Do You Dream in Color to be beautiful on every level: the lyrics, the vocals, the music, the arrangement. Even read alone, the lyrics are poetic and rhythmically in line, and I understand that you wrote the words to this song yourself. Do you see yourself more involved in composing in the future?

Again, thank you so, so much for the compliment. I was so excited to be given the opportunity to be both singer and poet for a piece of music. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that for myself, but now that I've done it, I am excited about exploring more opportunities to do so again. I don't see myself as a composer, but I do see myself as the lyricist. I love how Bruce Adolphe interpreted my words, and made them come alive in the music. My partner Jenny who is a composer and producer, and I are working on an album together. Some of the songs will be covers of pop and musical theater songs, and some of them will be original songs for which Jenny is writing the music, and I am writing the lyrics. One of the songs we've already written is about the issue of bullying, and remembering who you are in spite of how others make you feel. We project that the album will come out some time next year.

Which other composers do you enjoy listening to or sing and why?

I love singing Baroque Music. Handel is great because of the florid passages, the vocal fireworks and acrobatics. I love to sing George Crumb's music as he often requires the voice to take on qualities of the instruments in an ensemble. Brahms is incredible to listen to and to sing. I also enjoy a lot of Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, and some pop. The Leonard Cohen "Hallelujah" is a particular favorite.

What advice would you give to young aspiring musicians?

I would tell them to always believe their mentors, and never follow the advice of the nay-sayers. The mentors we have understand our talents best, and it is in their advice and words of praise that we should be invest our energy. Sometimes, it is good to get tough but constructive criticism because it helps us grow, even when it is hard to swallow. However, we should not take the more toxic feedback to heart because it is not productive. The other thing I would advise is to follow your dreams. I know so many desires look pie-in-the-sky on paper, but the most amazing things happen when people believe in their dreams enough to see them through, and to do what it takes to make them come to fruition.

Is there anything else that you would like to tell our readers?

I would tell people to try and resist the temptation to make assumptions about people based on their own stereotypes of a disability. I wrote the book because I realized that though I have a wonderfully rich life full of amazing life experiences, people who are just getting to know me don't realize just how rich a life a blind person can have, so they start imagining limitations. I hope this book helps people see past these things, and that their ideas of limitations are dispelled.

by Olivia Lin