Future Reflections Convention Report 2012
by Laurie Rubin
Seven Stories Press, 342 pages, $11.98 paperback
Reviewed by Deborah Kent Stein
Among the widely held stereotypes about blind people is the idea that vision loss and musical ability go hand in hand. The success of performers such as Stevie Wonder, José Feliciano, and Diane Schur reinforces the idea that music is a field where blind people can excel, where they may in fact have an edge over their sighted counterparts.
A number of blind musicians have indeed been successful in the jazz and pop genres. However, very few have won acclaim in the highly competitive and exacting world of classical performance. As one of history's first blind operatic singers, mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin is a pioneer.
Blind since birth due to Leber's congenital amaurosis (LCA), Laurie Rubin grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. From an early age, her family encouraged her talent for singing. Besides providing her with voice lessons, her parents seized every opportunity to make contact with singers who might promote their daughter's budding career. By the time she was eleven, Rubin was on a first-name basis with country singer Kenny Loggins and tenor Michael Crawford, star of the musical Phantom of the Opera. She began to sing at local civic events, and when she was fourteen she sang the national anthem at the inauguration of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
Laurie Rubin recounts her dazzling musical trajectory in her memoir, Do You Dream in Color? (The title comes from one of the questions she is asked most frequently.) Her journey has carried her to solo recitals at Wigmore Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York, as well as a leading role in a full production with the New York City Opera. Yet threaded through Rubin's story of success are the personal and professional challenges that arise from people's responses to her as a blind person. Rubin writes with aching candor about her teenage struggle to make friends, her exhausting efforts to prove herself worthy of respect at school and beyond, and her crushing disappointments when opportunities are denied her due to the anxiety and low expectations of others.
As a seventh grader at a highly select private academy, Rubin is ostracized by her peers. When she does well on exams, her French teacher assumes that she must be cheating. In one exquisitely painful scene, Rubin discovers that her mother secretly has had her trailed by a pair of social workers on a mission to find out why fellow students avoid her. Eventually, when she makes friends with a handful of fellow outsiders, Rubin concludes that the climate at Oakwood is simply hostile to difference of any kind.
Life takes a dramatic turn for the better when Rubin enters Oberlin College, where she earns degrees in English literature and vocal performance. At Oberlin, diversity is not merely tolerated but celebrated. Rubin finds herself swept into a rich and active social life. Musical opportunities abound, culminating when she is chosen to sing the starring role in a full production of Rossini's La Cenerentola, an operatic recreation of the Cinderella story. Initially Rubin is dismayed by the director's decision to depict La Cenerentola as blind, having her wear dark glasses onstage. However, she comes to realize that the way La Cenerentola is treated by her family reflects how blind people are devalued in society. When he removes her dark glasses, the prince shows that he sees her as her true self.
After graduating from Oberlin, Rubin enters the opera program at Yale. The program is designed to give each of its sixteen students firsthand experience in opera performance. Nevertheless, Rubin is never cast in one of the program's major productions. When she confronts the casting director, she is told, "It would be very dangerous up there on that stage for you, and it would be very hard for you to get around." The decision is unshakeable.
After completing the Yale program, Rubin settles in New York City and joins the hordes of other highly talented, impeccably trained, unemployed musicians. The frustrations of job-hunting are compounded by her realization that she is unequipped to handle the basics of cooking and housekeeping. Though her parents have provided her with splendid academic and professional opportunities, they have also instilled her with a sense of inadequacy in the kitchen. "If I happened to get too near the stove or oven when something was cooking," Rubin writes, "I would hear a shout of, 'No, Laurie! Get away from that. It's very dangerous in here right now!' My picking up a knife would cause gasps, followed by fast footsteps, and the ominous object being hastily taken away from me." The encouragement of her partner and a series of lessons with a rehabilitation teacher turn Rubin into a confident cook. Yet she writes wistfully, "If only I had known in childhood what I know now, all the fine motor skills used for things like pouring, cutting, and stirring would be so much easier for me, and I wouldn't have to give them a second thought. To this day, those things that come naturally to most take extra effort on my part because of my inexperience, not my lack of sight."
Rubin finds her niche at last in the world of new music. She performs in works by contemporary composer John Harbison, and sings the leading role in Gordon Beeferman's new opera, The Rat Land. Working with the director, she finds ways to move about easily on the stage, such as placing rugs to help her walk in a straight line.
Rubin tells a story that will resonate with many blind readers and their families. Perhaps it will speak as well to those unfamiliar with blindness, awakening them to the ways that talent, perseverance, and ingenuity can open the door to possibility.