Art Talk with mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin
"I think that the role of an artist is not just to perform, but it's to convey something to bring communities together.' --- Laurie Rubin
Mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin has been blind since birth. While her disability has at times proved challenging in her chosen profession, it hasn't stopped her from amassing an impressive list of credits, including a solo recital at Carnegie Hall, a lead role with New York City Opera, and concerts of new music with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. And as of this week, Rubin has another feather to add to her metaphoric cap---published author. Her memoir Do You Dream in Color? Insights from a Girl Without Sight is newly pubbed by Seven Stories Press. Rubin is also the co-founder and associate artistic director of Ohana Arts, a Honolulu-based performing arts school and festival for young people. Oh, and did I mention that she's also a jewelry designer? I spoke with the musical multi-tasker when she was in Washington, DC, for interviews and a special performance at the Old Post Office building. Here's Rubin's take on taking risks, the importance of mentors, and falling in love with opera.
NEA: What’s your version of the artist's life?
LAURIE RUBIN: Well, it's definitely not the 9-5. It's definitely not knowing when your next paycheck is coming. But, it's also a wonderful, emotional rollercoaster and a great adventure. You get to go to the best places and it's just great. You meet very interesting people, so there's a lot of spontaneity…. [My partner Jennifer Taira and I] live in Hawaii, and we just co-founded a performing arts festival and school. We were living in New York for about seven-and-a-half years, and we were doing some really exciting things. One of the things we felt was that we wanted to feel like we were giving back, and in New York you can see a million and one concerts, but in Hawaii, the symphony right now is having a really hard time. They haven't had a real season in a couple of years now, maybe two or three years, and so we wanted to bring back some of that regularity of classical music. We wanted to have enrichment programs for the arts for education for students…. We are now in our fourth season, and our participation has tripled since our first year. We have almost 60 kids in our program [ages] 8-18, and we have three different programs. We have a musical-theater intensive workshop in the morning where they learn acting, dancing, and singing, intensive instruction in all of those things such as jazz and ballet, classical voice, and various different types of method acting…. We [also] do a production---a main stage production with amazing sets. We have this incredible set designer, and we just did Oliver, and we're doing Footloose this coming summer.
Our other program is we have a performer-composer workshop. So for kids who are really proficient at their instruments, they get to learn how to start composing. [There are] things that they might want to do, but they might be gun-shy at writing their own music. So, that program really was successful last year. It was our launch of that. In the fall we had a festival of music for a week. So, it was concerts that took place all over the island. We brought musicians from the mainland, mostly New York, and we brought an opera production that was premiered at the Greenwich music festival. It was the production of [Francis Poulenc’s] La Voix Humaine, which is the human voice. So that was really really fun. All the concerts took place at different parts of the island, and we got great reception for that. What we'd eventually like to do is to grow this as our life's work into an Interlochen situation or Tanglewood, so that it would be an international gathering place for the arts. So people from all over the world would get the opportunity to be in Hawaii---which is such a wonderful place---and it would just be mutually beneficial just in terms of the tourism industry. And also for peace---arts is the leveling playing field that makes everybody vulnerable together. So, we are just really excited about it.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement or interaction with the arts?
RUBIN: Well, it started when I was just an audience member seeing The Phantom of the Opera and going to Kenny Loggins concerts. I was always in awe of people who were artists, and I was always drawn toward it. When I was in elementary school, I had a music teacher---it was at a school for the blind---who insisted that all of us interact with every single instrument in the orchestra. We would touch it, we would learn how to play it, we would try to make sounds with every instrument. So we would know when we saw a concert how the music was being created. That was really special. I just always wanted to be involved in the arts, especially when I saw The Phantom of the Opera. And of course, that's a whole play about opera. I wanted to be Christine so badly, in the worst way. That was really the beginning of my [love for] classical music, for sure, because I told my voice teacher, "I want to sing opera" after that. And she said, “Oh sure I love that I have a young student who wants to do opera. It's so rare.” She herself was a Juilliard grad in opera, so it was really a great way to start.
NEA: And were you taking voice just as a part of general music classes in school?
RUBIN: It was separate because I started taking piano, and I was never a big practicer for piano.... [I] just wanted to be able to play it already. It's just like the busy work, the tediousness, it's hard. So my piano teacher was noticing that I liked to sing along, and so instead of taking piano lessons, she recommended I take voice. And, so I did, and it was private instruction through when I was 11 years old to my senior year in high school [with] various teachers.
NEA: What attracted you to opera at such a young age?
RUBIN: I never thought I would meet other kids like me who liked opera, but there's several out there. So, what attracted me to opera was, actually, it was my grandparents, because they used to play opera all the time when I was younger. What happened was they would play Carmen, or they would play Puccini, or whatever have you. Eventually they noticed I was singing along with everything they were playing, so that was the beginning. So when I saw Phantom, even more so I was attracted. I was just mesmerized by it---the whole story, being taken to 19th-century France. For some reason, it just really resonated with me. And even though it's a musical theater play, the whole concept is all about opera. So, I think that's what got me into that world.
NEA: Along those lines, I'm curious about if there are certain performances that have galvanized you like seeing this performance of Phantom did.
RUBIN: I used to be a choral geek, a choir geek, and so I did the all-state honor choir and all those things, and that also helped me find other kids like me who liked classical music. My freshman year of college, I had already really gotten into the Dale Warland Singers. That's a group that I don't think is around anymore, but they are so unbelievable. They didn't have the sterile choir sound. They were able to make their voices sound like instruments, but they also had this wonderful effervescent quality to their sound that was still very human and natural. So, what happened was there was a concert at Oberlin that they [performed in]. I sat in the first row, and I was so amazed by how in sync they all were. It's one thing to do stuff on a recording… but they were just as good if not better in person. And so seamless…. The harmonies were so crunchy, they were just dissonant and yet so beautiful. In the first row you can really hear all the flaws. And there was nothing; it was just perfect. I remember sitting there and getting goose bumps…. I think that one really taught me that you can strive for that kind of perfection in your singing. You don't have to rely on acoustic. It's really fine tuning it and finding that placement. Also, seeing Frederica von Stade in concert. She also became a mentor of mine, which was pretty neat because she's so warm. Every piece she sings, she has the utmost amount of artistry and musicality, and so that was really special….. I mean there have been so many, but those are the ones that just for some reason today are coming to mind.
NEA: Could you talk a little bit about how you select your repertoire?
RUBIN: It really depends. Sometimes it's fun to do concerts with the social or political context. We did that in New York a lot because we felt that classical music already is so distant for some people. It's not relevant. So, what we wanted to do was create concerts with a mission to make it more interactive for people. One concert we did was called Love Has No Bounds. This was when Proposition 8 was passed in Los Angeles, California rather, and we were so devastated by that because gay marriage was so close to just existing and being a regular part of life. One of the big arguments that people had against this was because they were saying well, we need to protect our children. Meanwhile, there are all these kids on the streets of New York who have been kicked out of their homes because they're gay. So what we did was we gave all the proceeds of that concert to the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which protects and nurtures gay youth. It has all kinds of programs. They have a high school for LGBT youth. We gave money to that. We did gay and lesbian composers, and we did a stage opera scene about this lesbian couple from the 1800s.
NEA: What opera is that?
RUBIN: It's called Patience and Sarah. They had done it in New York a couple years before, so ours was, I think, the second New York performance of some of those scenes. And it was just such a great turn out because people wanted to support this cause.
We also did Women in the Arts. We had a bunch of women painters and sculptors, and we had a curator who chose them from a vast array of applicants, and we put their art in St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, which is where we had our series, and we did a bunch of music around it. We had a theme for the concert---something about dissonance and perception of women or something---and we did pieces that related to that, whether they were voice pieces or just instrumental pieces by women composers. What it did is it got artists and musicians to appreciate each other's art. Both communities kind of came together because of the confluence of music and art.
I think of a theme, for example, “Do You Dream in Color?” is all about blindness, which made me want to feature some other blind composers. So, doing [Joaquin] Rodrigo seemed very exciting. It just really depends. Sometimes I don't select rep. because I'm hired to do something, but I always try to be thoughtful in trying to choose something. When I do pop music, I do a lot of musical theater and pop because some audiences really like that better. I always try to choose pieces that have a message, or I'll tell stories relating [to the piece.] So I do “You'll Never Walk Alone,” for example, because I had a guide dog so I tell my story about my guide dog…. I just try to make it relatable to the audience. I think [that] is the bottom line.
NEA: Can you talk about some of the challenges you've faced as a singer who is blind?
RUBIN: I think there were some technical ones [such as] were body language. I know that people expect to see certain kinds of body language in opera because… it's so particular to the period. So you have these crazy gestures that people have interpolated from different centuries. So that's hard for me because growing up, I was never able to see what body language was like. And I think when we develop our inflection or our communication, it's all by observing. I just never observed with my eyes, obviously, so I just never entered that into my own use of language. So, it was very difficult and challenging for a director to say, "Okay, Laurie, mince across the stage." And I said, “Okay, so what does it mean to mince?” So they had to deconstruct every tiny miniscule little thing. Okay, your feet, now, move them a little more closely together. Now, do this. Now, try to think of this. [It was challenging to understand] even a tiny curvature of your arm, which people don't even think about, they just do it naturally. It's sort of how we speak. There are so many subtleties in our inflection when we speak. I think that was a big challenge. I think I've also found a really good balance of directors who learn to work with what works with me, and what is organic to me and my experience.
Then I think just getting people to see me as normal because they have so many hang-ups about blindness. So even if I do look perfect to them on stage, they're so concerned with me falling into the pit, or all they can see is turning an operatic role into someone who's completely blind rather than just thinking it's fluid…. So those are the kind of challenges I face, whenever I enter a situation. Their image of a blind person is super-imposed onto me, no matter what kind of performance I give. When I find the most success is when people see me performing not in the context of an audition, but they're just there to enjoy a performance. They see me in a role. Then they can realize how I can integrate on the stage, and then they can begin to imagine rather than in an audition setting which is so artificial. I think those are the main challenges.
NEA: What would your advice be to young people who have disabilities and want to move forward in the arts?
RUBIN: I think my advice to them would be, first of all, always follow the advice of your mentors, and always keep close by your mentors. Because you don't want to be around the nay-sayers and try to win them over. They don't know you; they don't understand you. It's really about sticking with the people who do care about you. Letting them help shape things for you, and guide you to the right people. It's so easy to believe the bad reviews and sort of discard the good ones, but it's the good ones you have to believe because those are the people who see deeply inside of you and your soul and what you're trying to convey. The other thing I would say is to follow your dreams. It's so easy in life to say this isn't realistic to me. If something doesn't work out right away, it's easier to do that. But now, I really believe that it's better for people to really follow their hearts and take risks. We certainly did doing our Ohana Arts. Doing what we did on paper would look completely ridiculous; we managed it. We took very few courses on non-profit [businesses], but we started it anyway because we wanted to do it. We went in not knowing what we were doing and we're learning as we go.
I think that people, just in general, have to really unconditionally follow their dreams as far as it will take them. The other thing is believe in yourself. I think it was really hard for me as a teenager to remember that I'm a normal person. There were all these stigmas placed upon me as a teenager. One thing that we have to really learn to do is be resilient. That's one of the most important things. It goes back to don't let the nay-sayers let you down. Just remember who you are.
NEA: Now, we move into the philosophical. I always like to ask artists what they see as the role of the artist in the community?
RUBIN: This goes into what we do for Ohana Arts. I think the role of the artist in the community is to communicate something. For the “Do you Dream in Color?” piece that you just heard, it was really exciting for me because I wanted to not only selfishly perform in front of an audience, or go to great places and be on great stages, but it's all about, for me, sharing with a particular group of people something that's very emotionally vulnerable for all of us, and for us to share in it together. I think that art can really make big changes happen, and so when I got the opportunity to write the “Do You Dream in Color” poem and have it set to music, I knew that it's different than just having a rally and shouting out and preaching to people. It's actually very subtly getting things into their spirit via the music. They will all interpret it in their own way. I think all art is very profound in how it impacts people's lives. So, I think it's really important to share that.
[The arts] can change things politically and socially and it can get melt down barriers, I think. And that's one of the things we're doing with Ohana Arts. We're trying to instill a sense of peace. We have so much going on in terms of---and this will sound cliché---but we have all these wars going on and it's repetition of the same problem of intolerance and not understanding other people and just letting silly things get in the way. I think when you bring people from all over the world together, you realize how similar we all are, no matter what food we eat or what wars we're in. It's the great equalizer. It brings you on a level playing field.
So I think that the role of an artist is not just to perform, but it's to convey something to bring communities together, and to tell a universal story through the arts. Also, to educate. I think one of the things [about] New York---we were having a great time performing---but one of the things that was really difficult for me was I didn't feel fulfilled in the sense that I didn't feel like I was giving back. In Hawaii, I do because the kids had never experienced what we're offering them before. Their parents are saying some of the young kids who had reading disabilities are not showing that anymore. Now that they had to learn how to read a script, they're so motivated now their reading levels have dramatically gone up. I think our mission is to just really find ways of building upon education, keeping arts alive in communities, and having this mission of piece.
NEA: Conversely, do you think the community has a responsibility to the artist?
RUBIN: Oh, absolutely. And I know that the argument that you hear sometimes is that the arts don't produce money, or it's not a lucrative thing. Why should we be making our kids go into the arts? I think that yes, the community does need to support the arts because I know it's not oil and I know it's not whatever it is that seems like a more productive thing to give money to. I think the arts is, again it's that if the community wants there to be music and wants museums and if they want history preserved, I think that we really do need to keep money flowing into the arts. You see, it's so terrible how orchestras are folding, and I'm sure museums too are undergoing a lot of devastation from not getting the funding they used to get. As a result, you just don't have the same education. You don't have the same level of intelligence because people can express themselves so eloquently through the arts. They learn history through the arts. Whenever we do a play we're teaching our kids about the 1900s, the 1800s, or we're teaching them about even something in the 1960s, or the 1950s, or the 1980s. They're learning stuff. And, you know, they wouldn't necessarily have the same context if they're just doing it out of a text book all the time. I think the domino effect that would happen if the arts were not be funded would be horrific. It would just be uninspired. Society would be uninspired.
NEA: And my final question, at the NEA we say Art Works. It means three things to us. One is the art work itself. It also means that art works to transform people. It has an actual effect on the artist and the audience. And third, that artists are workers. What does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?
RUBIN: For me, it means that art is always active and always doing something for somebody---like art therapy or music therapy…. It's helping them get better from an illness, or whether it's just making someone at a concert feel good. Or it's helping students assimilate it into their education. Art is always doing something for somebody. I think the mistake is that people think of it as a very selfish career that they're putting money into. I think that it's the reverse. I think it's a very selfless career because, first of all, it doesn’t pay that much most of the time, and yet it's giving back to somebody. It's conveying some message that might help somebody. Just all the things I just talked about…. We work our butts off with Ohana Arts, and we don't get paid yet because we're such a new organization we don’t have an operating budget yet. But it's a labor of love, and we're working not even from 9 to 5, but sometimes it's from 2 am to 2 am (laughter). It's just one of those things. So we're very busy doing something with a goal that we really believe in. So I do believe that art works on so many different levels. I think that's a great phrase.