Blind Opera Singer’s Memoir Reveals Blind Spot in All of Us

Above: Laurie Rubin sings “Non più mesta” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

When mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin was looking to buy a home, like many people, she wanted something with lots of natural light.

“What was very important to me was how bright it was in the house and having big windows and skylights,” Rubin said. “My world is very bright. I didn’t want a dark house at all.”

But unlike most people, Rubin is blind – though born with light perception that allows her to see light and darkness – and lives a life doing other things that blind people “shouldn’t” be able to do: perform in operas, design jewelry, run a school for the arts and even downhill skiing.

Rubin’s recent memoir, Do You Dream in Color? Insights From a Girl Without Sight (Seven Stories Press, $18.95), chronicles a life in which she has by her mere presence in the world challenged people’s assumptions about the limitations of disability. It is a triumphant story of Rubin’s undaunted ability to thrive as a blind person in an increasingly visually oriented world.

But Rubin’s memoir also presses fearlessly into tender spots, including the painful social challenges of her middle school years and the steady stream of obstacles thrown up by those who have underestimated her power to navigate the world with her disability. The result is a story less about disability and overcoming it, and more about Rubin’s journey into who she really is and what she – and others – can accomplish if only they believe they can.

“I wanted to tell a story about how we really fit in and what identity means to us and how to figure out what our niche is and how to figure out where we’re comfortable,” Rubin said in a recent phone interview. “And also to go after our dreams, because it’s so easy to find obstacles and reasons why our dreams shouldn’t work out, why they seem too pie-in-the-sky. And I think that this book is a way to share with people that you should go after your dreams no matter what is in your way and what obstacles are placed in your way at the time.”

Rubin has certainly had obstacles placed in her way. She writes about some of the challenges that blindness has posed for her, including requiring her to learn common skills like reading, skiing, checking email, cooking and learning music in specialized ways. Finding workarounds has been a leitmotif in Rubin’s life. But her memoir also reveals, if only by polite implication, that the biggest recurrent challenge she has faced is incorrect assumptions – prejudice, really – about what blind people can and cannot do.

Rubin writes with painful candor about some aspects of her early years: her challenging transition as a fourth grader from an elementary school for the blind to a mainstream public school, and her years in a prestigious private middle school, where the other adolescent students didn’t know how to accept her differences in social demeanor and dress. Then there were her years in graduate school at Yale Opera where, as Rubin writes in her memoir, she was the only student in the program denied the crucial career development opportunity to perform a lead role in a main stage opera production. And after moving to New York City to begin her professional career, Rubin was rejected for any number of non-musical jobs, in many instances seemingly because her prospective employers just weren’t sure a blind person could do the work.

Rubin admits that she hasn’t yet been able to find a solution to this kind of prejudice.

“It really bothers me, and even though I still try to talk to people about it, I realize that sometimes there’s just no changing people’s perceptions,” Rubin said,  “not because they don’t want to be open-minded, but because certain things are so ingrained in people.”

But, as with much else in her life, Rubin has found ways to work around those who just won’t give her a chance.

“I say, find your mentors, find the people who believe in you, because those are going to help you be your best self. So you need to find those people who understand you. And as hard as it is, don’t focus on the naysayers. Sometimes we want to do what’s challenging and we want to conquer these people, we want to conquer our biggest challenge. But the reality is that if we stick with our mentors, eventually those people will see it, if they’re worth it, they’ll see what you’re capable of.”

Rubin has been fortunate enough to find mentors at every turn, beginning with her supportive family and extending through her years at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and including musical giants like mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and pianist Graham Johnson, who invited Rubin to collaborate on an art song recording, Faith in Spring. She has also found her way onto the opera stage, singing lead roles in productions of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and Poulenc’s La Voix humaine at Connecticut’s Greenwich Music Festival.

Today, Rubin balances a varied schedule of chamber and opera performances, recording projects and teaching, along with administrative responsibilities as a co-founder, with her life partner Jennifer Taira, of Hawaii’s Ohana Arts Performing Arts Festival and School. In addition to teaching voice lessons and giving coachings at Ohana, Rubin handles public relations for the school – work that gives her a certain ironic satisfaction.

“One of the things that I felt in New York was that I was devalued, because when I was looking for actual work, meaning like a 9-to-5 job to support my artistic habit, I felt really like nobody would hire me,” Rubin said. “So now, being able to do things like being a PR person and taking care of grant writing all the stuff that we have to do, it makes me feel like I have value and like I’m doing exactly the kinds of things I should have been hired for before.”

Rubin has also turned her jewelry making hobby into a side career, promoting hand-made pieces under the brand “The LR Look.” She’s also working on a book of fiction and hopes to curate a book about, as she puts it, “blind people doing amazing things.” She and Taira are currently writing Rubin’s next recording, a crossover album, The Girl I Am.

So does Laurie Rubin dream in color? Absolutely – in living color. Do You Dream in Color? Insights from a Girl Without Sight is an amazing life story, but it’s much more than that. In all its gracious honesty, the memoir finds a way to expose the blind spots of prejudice that so quickly impair how people think about others. Read it, and be disarmed.