Laurie Rubin is an accomplished mezzo-soprano. She makes her own jewelry, and snow and water skiing are among her hobbies.
And, oh yeah, she’s blind. Has been since birth.
Yes, it’s a handicap, but she doesn’t “see” it that way. And she wishes others -- particularly those considering her for opera productions -- wouldn’t either.
“In my case, it’s a lot more difficult getting opera roles,” Rubin said in a phone interview to promote her Arts in the Soul concert Sunday at First Presbyterian Church. “I have done opera, and it’s been very rewarding. But it requires directors who believe in my abilities. Together we find the artistry and poetry.”
She then shared a story about a difficult audition in New York City. Afterward, a woman approached Rubin and her guide dog on the streets, saying she had heard the audition. Rubin expected a critique of her performance, but the woman instead told her how she admired Rubin’s courage.
The woman meant well, but “I wanted to be appreciated as a singer and a musician,” Rubin said. “She couldn’t get past (the blindness).”
When Rubin returned home, she vented to her then partner and now wife, Jennifer Taira, who offered Rubin some advice.
“She said, ‘Why don’t you write a book?’” Rubin recalled. “She had heard every single one of my stories more than once. She told me to write a book about it.”
And so Rubin did, publishing “Do You Dream in Color? Insights From a Girl Without Sight” in October 2012. At the same time, Bridge Records released the book’s companion CD, which includes the world premiere recording of Bruce Adolphe’s composition, “Do You Dream in Color,” with Rubin setting poetry for it.
In her book, Rubin describes her past as a “journey towards identity,” a story she hopes resonates with young people who may be struggling to find their places. She shares stories, ranging from her loneliness as a middle-schooler to her successes on stage.
“I’ve received a lot of calls from my friends and my peers from junior high school, and they all say the exact same thing: I was going through that, too,” Rubin said.
That strikes a chord with Rubin.
Although she’s blind, “I’m actually similar to everyone else,” she said. “There’s nothing all that different about me as you might think. … I haven’t become particularly wise being blind. I’m just a regular ol’ person.”
On Sunday afternoon, Rubin, 37, will make her Nebraska debut, performing a mix of classical, pop and musical theater music. Taira will accompany her on piano.
Brian Pfoltner, Arts for the Soul executive and artistic director, said Rubin fits with this year's premise of "engaging the mind, warming the heart, inspiring the soul."
"We always try to find high-quality artists," he said. "This year, we also were looking for people with a different kind of story, and Laurie is a perfect example of that."
Pfoltner became exposed to Rubin's music at a Midwest arts conference that features presenters and agents. He liked what Rubin brings to the table.
"She's a very musical singer, a very emotional singer," he said. "There's a lot of feeling in what she does to go along with her amazing vocal quality."
Rubin partly credits -- of all people -- Kenny Loggins for her early interest in music.
Yep, THAT Kenny Loggins, the same one who had hit songs on “Caddyshack,” “Footloose” and “Top Gun” soundtracks.
She was 5 when her family became friends with him. Her parents had met the singer -- of all places -- in a supermarket. They attended his concerts and received backstage invitations.
“I met a lot of his musicians -- his keyboardist, his guitarist,” she said. “I learned a lot about the music scene from them. I got to sing on one of his albums when I was 12 (“If You Believe” from 1991’s “Leap of Faith”). I learned a lot over the years. You could say it was osmosis.”
Rubin credits her Austrian grandparents for her interest in classical music. Opera and such often filled their house.
But what really keyed her interest was a performance of “Phantom of the Opera” she saw when she was young.
“After that, I told my voice teacher I wanted to sing just like Christine,” Rubin said of the musical's ingenue.
Her music career has flourished. She’s performed solo recitals in Carnegie Hall and London’s Wigmore Hall. She’s worked with composers John Williams and the late Marvin Hamlisch and has sung at The White House and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The New York Times said she possesses “compelling artistry” and “communicative power” and her voice displays “earthly, rich and poignant qualities.”
Her opera performances have included the title role in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola,” as Mrs. Noye in Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde,” the lead role of Karen in Gordon Beeferman’s “The Rat Land,” as Penelope in Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses” and as Elle in Poulenc’s “The Human Voice.”
The latter she performed at the Greenwich Music Festival and the Ohana Arts Festival. It’s a one-woman, one-act opera about a woman’s last phone conversation with her lover. Rubin can see light, so stage lighting and three dancers helped her avoid any tumbles.
“For people trying to imagine what it’s like to be me, I think it would be like me trying to imagine what it would be like to not have hearing,” she said. “It’s very hard to get into that experience. Let’s just say, there’s a lot of fear involved.”
Rubin describes the color blue as the key of G.
“Isn’t that funny?” she said. “To me, it also feels like early evening or early morning. Green is an afternoon in my backyard and the smell of trees. Brown is chocolate or earthy things.”
Though Rubin can’t see colors, she “senses” them in other ways. This is how she’s become a successful jewelry maker (thelrlook.com). She also interprets textures with her hands, saying beads feel different from glass, and glass different from metal.
“I also love doing makeup, and I love clothes … I’m a visual person who can’t be a visual person at the same time.”
Rubin also continues to create musically.
This fall, she and Taira premiered “Peace on Your Wings,” a musical they produced for Ohana Arts, the nonprofit they co-founded with Cari Lee in Oahu, Hawaii, in 2010 to provide arts programs for youth. Ohana Arts serves more than 80 students, ages 8 to 18.
“Peace on Your Wings,” the organization’s first touring production -- it played in Los Angeles in September and is scheduled for Japan -- is the story of Sadako Sasaki, one of the children who died from radiation exposure from the bombing of Hiroshima. She was made famous for having folded over a thousand paper cranes to fulfill an old Japanese legend that would grant one wish to anyone who would fold one thousand cranes.
“It’s been great,” said Rubin, who calls Hawaii home. “A lot of people don’t have high expectations of a kids’ performance, but our kids have really grown into these roles. I think it’s very powerful to see what these kids can do. The reception to it has been incredible.”