Mezzo-soprano sings of ‘Color’ despite blindness

When Laurie Rubin was the first blind student to become bat mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) 20 years ago, an overflowing crowd turned out to see her lead the service and chant the Torah portion from her Braille copy.

Rubin — now a rising mezzo-soprano who has performed in operas and in recital at Carnegie Hall — will return to the Encino synagogue on March 10, this time in a solo concert presented by VBS and the Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles.  She will sing works by composers such as Schubert, Gershwin, Gabriel Faure and the blind composer Joaquin Rodrigo — whose story inspired Rubin as a girl — accompanied by pianist Marija Stroke and clarinetist Jennifer Taira.  But the centerpiece of the program will be a piece that was written especially for Rubin’s expressive mezzo: Bruce Adolphe’s “Do You Dream in Color?” a song whose four stanzas are set to a poem Rubin wrote, in which she paints a vibrant portrait of her life as an artist who happens to be blind.

“I thought about the two questions people always seem to ask most about what it’s like to be blind:  ‘Do you dream?’ and ‘Do you dream in col-

or?’ ” Rubin, 33, said in a phone interview from her home in Honolulu, where she recently co-founded the Ohana Arts performing arts festival and school.  Of course, Rubin, like everyone else, does dream, and although blind since birth, the result of a condition that did not allow her retinas to develop, she said she perceives light and dark, day and night, and, on the morning of our interview, sensed the sun beginning to waft in through a window of her office.  Her sense of color is intuitive and also metaphorical, similar to how the scale of B-flat reminds her of chocolate, for example, or A major of cheerfully swinging on a swing set. 

In her lyrical poem, Rubin answers four different people who ask whether she dreams in color, the first, “As I fumble in my bag for that perfect shade of silvery purple that matches the dress I’m about to wear,” she sings.  Then there’s the salesman who inquires how Rubin — who also makes jewelry — selects the perfect iridescent pearls for a necklace. A third person, a little girl, teaches her how to name colors, while a music professional warns her that her career prospects, as a blind person, will be limited, prompting Rubin to reply, “I dream of the red gown that I’ll wear onstage, that is striking against my fair skin.”

“I love that fourth verse,” the Encino native said, “because some people in the opera industry have been very adamant that I would never have a career, since they assume I’m so isolated and helpless. This is my opportunity to tell the world how life really is for me, without getting angry or hurt — it’s an opportunity to have my voice heard.”

By now, Rubin said, her life has clicked, with gigs in abundance, a new CD out and a memoir to be published by Seven Stories Press in October, both titled, “Do You Dream in Color?”  She’s performed at London’s Wigmore Hall and at the White House, under the baton of John Williams, in benefit concerts with opera star Frederica von Stade and as the lead in Gordon Beeferman’s “The Rat Land” with the New York City Opera.  The New York Times has written of her “compelling artistry” and “communicative power,” while the Los Angeles Times praised her “especially acute intuition about the power and subtleties of sound.” 

But Rubin said for years she encountered obstacles due to her blindness, even as she attended Oberlin College, studied opera at Yale and began her career in New York.  “At Yale, they managed never to give me a [leading] role because they were so terrified that I might fall off the stage or not know how to get from point A to point B,” she remembered. “I’m thinking,

‘How do they think I navigate my own kitchen?’ ”

Further, she said, “People kept telling me, ‘You can’t be as good as your sighted peers, you have to be better, because there are going to be all these fears and questions, and people are going to think you need so much extra help. There’s still a lot of proving myself to be done.”

Rubin said she is able to navigate the operatic stage when directors give instructions that “mine my own organic movements and motivations.” To carve a niche for herself, Rubin has also developed vocal techniques that have enabled her to perform classical new music — “the music a lot of composers are writing now that includes some crazy things, like inhaling while singing,” she explained. “I really expanded my musical and vocal range to do things a lot of singers won’t do.”

Composer Adolphe emceed the Lincoln Center concert where Rubin sang a new music piece that had been written for her about the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks; some time later, he asked if he could write a solo piece for her. The mezzo was thrilled — until he said he wanted to set the music to a poem she might write about her blindness.  “I thought, ‘Oh, no, don’t go there,’ because people often just want something to become about my blindness, and I feel like, ‘Just let me be an artist.’ ”

It was, nevertheless, a terrific opportunity, and an idea emerged as Rubin sat at her computer one day; she thought about that question people so often ask about her dreams — and decided to answer it both literally and figuratively in verse. 

“I dream what I experience,” she sings in “Do You Dream in Color?”  “I dream the smell of flowers, or the taste of chocolate, or about an argument my subconscious devised between my mom and me, the kind where you wake up just before you say the perfect thing.”

“My life is full of dreams,” she sings toward the end of the piece, “and my dreams are full of colors, and my dreams are real, because they come true every day.”

For advance purchases and more information about the concert, March 10 at 7:30 p.m., call Valley Beth Shalom at (818) 788-6000. Tickets are $10 in advance (reservations will close at noon on Friday, March 9) and $15 at the door.