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Blind Opera Singer Laurie Rubin on the Textures of Music

Laurie Rubin.

Witches. Wisdom. Wonder. Vireo is an opera created for TV and online broadcast that considers the usage of "female hysteria" throughout the decades. The multi-episode production was composed by Lisa Bielawa on a libretto by Erik Ehn and directed by Charles Otte. "Vireo" is the winner of the 2015 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Multimedia Award.

Think of blind musicians, and a smattering of names might come to mind, from the late Ray Charles and Art Tatum to the ever-popular R&B artist Stevie Wonder and operatic sensation Andrea Bocelli. Add to that list Encino-born Laurie Rubin, the 36-year old mezzo-soprano who not only sings opera, designs a line of jewelry and is a memoirist, but recently collaborated with her life partner, Jenny Taira, on "Peace On Your Wings," a musical inspired by the true story of Sadako Sasaki.

Featuring an all-youth cast of 36, ranging in age from six to 18, as well as a 19-piece orchestra punctuated by taiko (Japanese drums), the work commemorates the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Successfully premiered in Hawaii in November 2014, "Peace" enjoyed a sold out statewide tour, and makes its North American debut on September 18 to 19 at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center -- a co-presenter with Ohana Arts, the non-profit arts education organization founded by Rubin and Taira.

Rubin, a font of energy, also sings the roles of the Voice/Witch in "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of A Witch's Accuser," an opera made expressly for episodic release via broadcast and online media in partnership with KCET Artbound and California State University Fullerton's Grand Central Arts Center.

"Peace On Your Wings." | Photo: Marc Orbito.
"Peace On Your Wings." | Photo: Marc Orbito.

We recently caught up with Rubin, who makes her home in Hawaii, during a break from filming the third and fourth episodes of the Lisa Biewala/Erik Ehn opera. Clad in a velvet and feathered caftan-like costume (designed by Christina Wright), Rubin, whose credits also include performing at the White House, was not only born to sing, but born to chat:

"It's amazingly powerful to see youth portraying such strong emotions in "Peace On Your Wings," says Rubin, seated in the front row of the Ivy Substation, home to The Actors' Gang. "Being the ambassador to Sadako's message," adds the striking blonde, "is very positive and I want people, after seeing the show, to take away that they should join forces with other youth and other adults to be as peaceful as possible in the world."

Rubin has an indefatigable spirit -- she once described mezzo-sopranos as "sopranos with the balls" -- and she is not unfamiliar with challenges. Blind from birth, Rubin showed a keen interest in music from an early age.

"I started studying piano at age four," recalls Rubin, "but I never learned how to read Braille music, interestingly enough, so I do everything by ear. Eventually my piano teacher said, 'Maybe voice is your instrument,' because I wouldn't practice much, but I would always sing the notes.

"Peace On Your Wings." | Photo: Marc Orbito.
"Peace On Your Wings." | Photo: Marc Orbito.

"I just loved singing," adds Rubin, "and seemed to display more of that enjoyment, so I was maybe 11 when I started voice lessons."

As befitting her ebullient personality, Rubin then cited pop singer Kenny Loggins as being, well, instrumental, in her career.

"We listened to him all the time and one day my mom saw him at the market. She told Kenny, 'Oh, my 4-year-old blind daughter has a crush on you.' That led to him inviting us backstage at his next concert at the Universal Amphitheater. His secretary carried me, and we all went to meet him. It was really cool."

It also didn't hurt that Rubin has perfect pitch, and, at 12, Loggins tapped her to sing on an album he was recording. Asked to do a "little scat solo," on a track that featured a children's choir, Rubin was on her way, eventually studying opera in graduate school at Yale (where she also met her partner Taira).

But singing opera, a challenge for even a sighted performer, requires following a conductor's beats. Rubin, who developed a curriculum that makes use of blindfolding exercises designed to help seeing students understand what life is like without sight, explained that having studied music theory and memorization has been key.

"It's all about counting, taking other peoples' cues and stuff like that," she explained. "Now everything goes into Midi anyway. With [computer programs like] Sibelius or Finale, they can generate these sorts of artificial sounding but very accurate recordings, so I use those a lot.

"That's what Lisa [Bielawa] did for all of us," added Rubin, "so you have to hear other parts anyway."

Rubin, who was asked to sing at Mayor Richard Riordan's inauguration when she was 14, and won the Music Center Spotlight Award in 1997, said she finds conductors to be intuitive.

"For example," she noted, "you can hear them, like John Williams when I worked with him. He makes a lot of sound. He breathes in rhythm, and you feel the crescendo in his body, because he's so close to you when he's conducting, so that we're pretty much together."

Laurie Rubin.
Laurie Rubin.

"It's a very interesting relationship between conductor and singer, and I wonder if I would be swayed by watching their arms moving, in a way, feeling the energy from their bodies and hearing the breath they take. Sometimes they just make vocal sounds and they don't realize it."

Rubin also said that conductors have told her they "feel" the music with her. "They're actually kind of glad I'm not looking at them, because we have a closer, more intimate working relationship as we go through a piece of music together."

Having performed at numerous prestigious venues over the years, including the Kennedy Center and London's Wigmore Hall, the mezzo has also sung leading roles in Rossini's "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella"), and that of Karen in Gordon Beeferman's "The Rat Land," the latter with the now-defunct New York City Opera.

Accolades have also been showered upon the performer, with The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini writing that Rubin possesses "compelling artistry" and "communicative power," her voice displaying "earthy, rich, and poignant qualities."

In 2012, The Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed wrote: "Not able to make eye contact with her audience, Rubin appears to sing from the inside out, and this was something she addressed directly in the West Coast premiere of Bruce Adolphe's "Do You Dream in Color?" (which is also the title of her CD). The text is Rubin's and it answers a question often asked to her."

That same year, Rubin released a memoir, "Do You Dream in Color: Insights From a Girl Without Sight." She also addresses the logistics of actually performing in an opera and physically moving about a stage.

Rubin, rarely at a loss for words, said that directors often orient her to set pieces, telling her to put her back "to a certain chair, table, hallway or whatever." Rubin recalled performing Poulenc's 1958 one-act opera, "La Voix Humaine," with a libretto by Cocteau:

"It's just one person onstage -- me, a telephone and a chair, basically. What I did was, there were three dancers onstage and they were the lighting for the show, so whenever I would get more agitated in the scene, the lights would move in a certain way and because I can see light, I actually depended on them to be my guide for a little bit.

"Isn't that interesting?" Rubin mused. "Here's somebody who's blind and is using light as a guide. But they really helped me."

Bielawa, who was the 2009 Rome Prize winner in composition and wrote the "Vireo" score, has known Rubin since 2003, the pair having met at Carnegie Hall in a program designed to bring young composers together with young singers.

Laurie Rubin sings the roles of the Voice/Witch at a "Vireo" rehearsal. | Photo: Remsen Allard.
Laurie Rubin sings the roles of the Voice/Witch at a "Vireo" rehearsal. | Photo: Remsen Allard.

"I was there as a composer," Bielawa explained, "and Laurie was there as a singer. We were not actually matched up with each other, but I watched her work and thought, 'She is amazing.' We kept in touch, and I always had my eye and ear on her as somebody I wanted to work with -- and not in a small way -- but in a big way."

"Laurie's musical gifts are unique," added Bielawa. "When it became clear that we were going to be doing "Vireo," Laurie was one of the first people we talked with. It was exciting [because] the role is so right for her. There's this otherworldly aspect to the Voice/Witch, and because Laurie's blind, it's important for Charlie [Otte, the director], to work with her so she can function in these shoots without sight.

Bielawa went on to say that the team needed to find new ways of communicating in a rehearsal environment and in the shoot onstage. "I found those ways really exciting and invigorating in my own process. Laurie's a beautiful artist and a very intelligent woman, so it's been a great joy."

The joy is mutual, as Rubin is a champion of new music. "A lot of singers won't touch it with a 10-foot pole, but one of the things I'm strongest at as a singer is creating different colors with my voice, and new music really calls for that, as does early music, so I do a lot of both."

As to Rubin's blindness, the singer has taken a pragmatic approach.

"I can see sunlight," she says, "and I can see artificial light and fluorescent lighting, but if somebody was to donate their retinas, it wouldn't help me, because the cells would be dead. What [researchers] are doing is trying to regenerate cells by injecting DNA into some peoples' eyes."

"This is recent experimental stuff and [since] I've already developed my sense of the world and my visual cortex, I can't imagine trying to do those procedures at this point in my life."

Laurie Rubin sings the roles of the Voice/Witch at a "Vireo" rehearsal. | Photo: Sheri Candler.
Laurie Rubin sings the roles of the Voice/Witch at a "Vireo" rehearsal. | Photo: Sheri Candler.

What Rubin can imagine, though -- and has realized -- is her pet project, "Peace On Your Wings," which is set in post-war, 1950s Japan and follows the lives of middle school students in Hiroshima. Based on the life of Sadako Sasaki and inspired by the book, "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes," the story tells of the youngster who died at age 12 from leukemia resulting from radiation when the bomb was dropped near her home in 1945.

The cranes refer to the legend that a person will be granted one wish if they fold 1,000 paper cranes, and thus Sadako and friends make hundreds of origami birds out of needle wrappings, scraps, and any other paper they're able to find. Sadako's struggle and dreams for a better tomorrow teach the children -- and the world -- about courage, love and peace, with the Rubin/Taira score combining modern pop music with Japanese influences.

Rubin likens the theater piece to a "big Broadway-scale kind of musical for kids. And we made it happen," she adds. "Certainly it was a lot of work and a lot of stress on our part, but it was doable, and when people see it, they'll see how worthwhile it is to put a musical together with youth performing."

And while Rubin continues to defy naysayers and win over countless fans with her singing, her writing and her gregariously upbeat personality, she doesn't necessarily consider herself an activist.

"I'm a passively not so aggressive activist, but doing the work I do (to) educate the public about my life and other blind peoples' lives is helping to keep myself as an advocate for people with disabilities. One day I'll be doing an opera, the next day I'll be working with kids. I'm giving back sometimes and sometimes I'm performing, it just keeps me always doing different things that I love to do."

"Peace On Your Wings." | Photo: Marc Orbito.
"Peace On Your Wings." | Photo: Marc Orbito.

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