Mezzo-Soprano Laurie Rubin: Hear Her Colors, Feel Her Voice
The Millennium Stage Series at the Kennedy Center since its inception has been a venue for the surprising, the new, the varied and diverse. On Monday, Oct. 22, 6 p.m., that will be especially true and special when Laurie Rubin takes the stage.
The young, heralded mezzo-soprano brings her astonishing voice and sharp, powerful insights to the event, sharing excerpts from her memoir “Do You Dream in Color? Insights from a Girl Without Sight” (Seven Stories Press, to be published Oct. 23), telling her story in effect, and singing excerpts from a recent album which is also entitled “Do You Dream In Color?” along with Broadway and opera favorites. She will be accompanied by pianist/clarinetist Jenny Taira.
The question is a fairly recent one, but it’s a critical one for Rubin. In a phone interview, we had asked, almost naturally, whether or how she dreams. “I can’t see anything, specific colors," she answered. "But I can see shapes. I can see light, and, of course, I hear. Recently, I had a dream that I was talking with my mother, but my mother’s voice was not hers. Strange. But yes, I dream.”
YouTube is one of those places on the Internet where gifted people naturally are drawn in, showcased, illuminated and in Rubin’s case there’s a tape and interview that showcases her voice, her slender, attractive looks, the emotion and ranginess of her mezzo tones. Consider the first lines of the song, “Do You Dream in Color,” and hear a phrase so loaded with emotion, a phrase she seems to take apart letter by letter, consonant by consonant, vowel by vowel. The composition is by Bruce Adolphe, the poem, the words, the lyrics are by Rubin, sparked by a question from a child:
“Do you dream in color? She asks/watching me apply my makeup/her question gives me pause/as I fumble in my bag/for that perfect shade of purple.”
“I dream what I experience,” she tells the child in the poem. “I dream the smell of flowers, the taste of chocolate.”
The subconscious seeing or not is a powerful motivational tool. It’s always with you. “When I think of things be it chocolate which is a major weakness of mine or anything else, I think in musical terms, like chocolate as a musical note.”
Raised in California, Rubin was diagnosed as being blind very early. From the beginning, however, the state of being blind seemed more of a challenge as opposed to a wall you couldn’t get around for her. “I had a gift, a voice," she said. "But early on, in spite of all the help from your parents, your teachers, the encouragement, you do feel isolated. I think that’s the key difficulty, not what you can or can’t do. I can ski. I design jewelry. I am a bona-fide shopaholic. I navigated the streets of New York with my guide dog Mark. I read. But the difference, when I was younger, always remained. You felt outside. In high school, friends were into or sang pop music. I loved classical music from the start. That sort of thing.”
She speaks at a great distance from Hawaii, where she lives now pretty much like she writes. There’s a musicality to her voice that is rich with range and energy. She lets you into her imagination. She’s direct and open, not like a book, but like a song that you react to. Her writing moves fast—she’s telling the stories of her life—at Oberlin, at Yale in music studies, where—even though she has operatic ambitions—she was in the end not cast for parts because others were afraid she could not find her way around a stage.
Blindness isn’t always obvious. It’s certainly not an impediment to singing and can be essentially enriching because other senses are emboldened, heightened. “That adds something to how I sing, certainly,” Rubin said. And that’s been noticed. The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote that she has “compelling artistry” and “communicative power” with a voice that displays “earthy, rich and poignant qualities.” Rubin has been praised and supported in her concert work and stage work as well as recordings by the likes of opera legend Frederica von Stade and singer-song writer Kenny Loggins. The album marks the world debut of “Do You Dream in Color?” Rubin has recorded “Faith in Spring” with Graham Johnson and David Wilkinson on the Opera Omnia label, and she made her solo recital debuts at Wigmore Hall in London as well as at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall.
There’s a more prosaic but no less moving encounter on YouTube in which Rubin sings “You Lift Me Up” at the Israel Guide Dog Center, bringing her long-time service dog Mark on stage on the day of his retirement. “He has been with me for a long time, my friend,” she said. Naturally, we talk about dogs, how a replacement standard poodle “freaked out” in the city, about a new pet, about the patient qualities and intelligence of Mark. On the phone, we’re talking about qualities of blindness, about colors, sound, music. Phones take away what you think you know, talking like this, and you find a way to see each other in the talking.