Meet Madame Brightside
At least once or twice a lifetime people care to know if you dream in color or not. But for Laurie Rubin, it is a question she gets on numerous occasions. A renowned mezzo-soprano who grew up in a nice Jewish family in a nice Los Angeles suburb – only to move eastward all the way to New York City before turning around and heading westward past Los Angeles and onto Hawaii — Rubin is blind.
Rather than answer the question piecemeal and incrementally, Rubin decided to write her memoir, Do You Dream in Color?, where she answers that question and much more.
In this exclusive interview, we spoke to Rubin about the sounds and sights of her life.
Lesbian News: I understand you are in Hawaii. Are you working on a project there?
Laurie Rubin: We’re doing a production of Oliver. The organization that my partner, Jenny Taira and I cofounded with her sister, Cari, is called Ohana Arts Festival and School.
LN: I don’t recall Ohana mentioned in your book, “Do You Dream in Color?”
LR: The book was written before I moved to Hawaii. The book has been a long time in coming.
LN: Why did you want to write this book?
LR: I was living in New York and every day I would come across people who have absolutely no idea how rich my life was. People would say to me, “Oh, I’m so sorry you can’t see.” I traveled on the bus all the time with my guide dog and naturally people would come up to me with questions. Sometime people would come up to me and say, “I admire you for riding the bus without anyone helping you,” and some people would say, “I admire you for getting up in the morning.” Other people would say things like, “Well, do you even have a job?” And I would say, “I’m a singer.” The idea of [me] being a contributing member of society for people really eluded them in terms of my being a blind person. In writing the book I wanted to change opinions. When I would audition for things everybody’s concern was, “How is she going to do basic things? People don’t often stop to think, “Well, she made it to the audition so she is doing basic things, she is functioning.” I realized how much I had to educate people and I also realized how much I had to uplift people about my own experiences because it made them kind of sad thinking about what my life must be like.
LN: Where do you think people are getting the idea that people who cannot see are somehow helpless?
LR: I think it comes from the fact that they have always had sight so they can’t imagine what it must be like. They are so used to, say navigating the subway line, reading signs. I bet you somebody who has been [taking] the subway for, say twenty years still has to look to figure out where the #2 train is or where uptown is. It’s just natural. So for them to try to put themselves in my shoes, where I‘ve learned that there is a method to the subway and it’s not random.
LN: It seems so self-evident that we all have to adapt to one degree or another.
LR: Most of the time people give people the benefit of the doubt and assume the best of them. I think there are just so many questions. People a lot of times assume that I need help all the time. I want to get past that. I want people to think, “Oh, this is a person who has things under control” and now we can get to the stuff that you don’t even think about — like just hanging out. People are so afraid that I don’t go to movies. Not long ago, my partner and I were sitting at this restaurant on the Upper West Side and I was frustrated at the time because I hadn’t had gigs for a while and I had been auditioning and hadn’t gotten anything and I also suspected that at the time that people were afraid to hire me [because of my blindness]. So Jenny said, “Why don’t you write a book?” I had already written blogs and she had seen my writing. And I thought that’s a good idea!
LN: As a woman without sight do you find people see you slightly more helpless than your male counterparts?
LR: I haven’t encountered sexism very much
LN: Have you encountered much hostility in the world in general, as opposed to the music world, being a lesbian?
LR: Interestingly, when people talk to me they say, “Wow, you got all of the minorities: being gay, being a woman, being blind, being Jewish.” I mean, there are tons of them! [Laughs.] It’s interesting. I feel in general that my relationships with women – and this goes with the whole sexism thing – sometimes people don’t take them as seriously. For example, men will treat me in a certain way that I don’t think they would treat me if I had a husband. It’s very subtle, but it’s like flirtation. For example, I’ll be doing a gig and my current partner will be right there. And it’s very hard because these are people who are very influential in my career and they will be touchy-feely with me or they will do things that really bother me and my partner; and even though they are obviously not directly hitting on me, or something, you know that they would not do that to somebody who had a husband. Also, I think with the whole blindness thing, people assume that Jenny is in a way my companion, my helper, rather than actually my equal partner. So, there is a strange dynamic and it can be, at times, a little bit frustrating.
LN: You write in the book at length how people assume that Jenny is your assistant. Has that perception changed much?
LR: [Laughs.] I wouldn’t say it has changed. I think it depends on the people. People who are younger are just savvier about gay stuff; and the nice thing is that younger people are also, in general, are savvier about blindness, too. We have had situations where [older] women and men won’t even make eye contact with Jenny. They will just say, “Can you get me a glass of water?” or whatever. And I say, “That’s not what she is here for.” It’s very frustrating. Another thing that is frustrating is that she is a musician — she’s a pianist, she’s a clarinetist. I want her to be treated as an equal partner in our relationship but also as the musician that she is – especially when we work on musical projects.
LN: I noticed that you use a lot of first names in your book. Are they real names or did you use pseudonyms for legal purposes?
LR: A lot of them are changed. I kept the names real for the people who I thought would want to be named in the book, that it would make them happy that I remembered.
LN: You write quite a bit about your first few years in high school, but then you jumped to college. What happened with your high school graduation and do you think you were happy in high school?
LR: Interesting. High school wasn’t as eventful [as college]. I actually had written some chapters about high school but through the editing process the editor got rid of certain things that she thought were too redundant about things that had happened in middle school. The things that I mention [about] high school were more about my experiences outside of high school, like Tanglewood. Those were the more influential things. The beginning starts with me and how I wanted to get into Oberlin. I was so happy to leave high school and so excited to go to college. I knew that college would be an extension of all of the things that I liked and all of the things that I was excited about.
LN: During these times you discovered that you were gay. What was it like coming out to your parents?
LR: My brother had come out several years before and it wasn’t that great of an experience to come out to my dad because when it’s a guy coming out to a father, I think there are a lot of other issues there. But when I came out to my mom, I think she had suspected it since I was, like, 9. She was fine with it. But I think she thought that in some ways maybe it was a phase for me because I went to a very liberal college. Oberlin is known for people experimenting, so I think she thought that might be it — especially because I have the tendency to wear feminine clothes and all that stuff. When my mom found out she was a little worried that all the lesbians were going to influence me not to be attractive and all these things and I used to explain to her that that is not what being gay is about and it’s just about liking women. Then when I graduated from Oberlin she was just so happy. Then I went to Yale Opera and I started to be, I guess, what she considered to be myself again and around other people who cared about what they looked like, I guess and she was relieved and it didn’t matter if I had a man or a woman as a partner. Especially as a blind singer, she wanted to make sure that I knew how I was presenting myself to the public. I never really told my dad because I think men, at least a lot of the straight men I know, have a hard time dealing with the emotional things [regarding] their daughters. My dad doesn’t like to share when I was in a relationship with a guy or a girl. It just made him squirm. He’s seen Jenny a lot and now he just knows. So I think nowadays it’s all good. Everything is great.
LN: Are they pressuring you two for kids?
LR: Yes. [Laughs.] Of course. Well, my mom is like, “Why don’t you have kids already?” Almost every conversation is about that.
LN: You mention how your voice is conducive to arias and melisma passages. Why do you think this is and can you explain what melismatic means to readers who might not be familiar with classical music?
LR: There are all different kinds of voices out there. It’s interesting to think of a voice having a weight and a height to it. My voice is lighter, so when I sing it is like a light creature, like a bird. It has the ability to move fast. [Sings] That’s what they call coloratura. Arias that do well for me are the ones that have a lot of that up and down — moving through the notes quickly. A lot of that has to do with the size of my voice. I’ve gotten to know, also through teaching, that everybody’s voice is capable of doing different things, like [there are different] strengths and weaknesses. For me, [my strength] is being able to move my voice fast.
LR: Women in power. Interesting. It’s kind of an amazing thing when you work with people like Frederica Von Stade. She doesn’t wield power. She’s not the kind of person who would abuse her status for something unjust. She’s the kind of person who would say, “Well, I’d love for this person to hear you,” or if she said, “I would love to start a foundation,” she probably could because she has that name behind her. It was really neat to see people, men, accepting her and taking her opinion seriously. One of the things that inspired me to start being entrepreneurial is knowing people like her. Jenny and I, all of us are women challengers of our organization now. Being movers and shakers as women is interesting. One of the things that we’re coming across now is what would it be like to have men board members? We’re worried that some of those top executive people might feel better having a man in our position. Board members have control to fire us even though we founded the organization, they could fire us. There is always the fear and I don’t think it’s conscious. I don’t think people are meaning to discriminate; it’s just people feeling more comfortable with what they know. There is that dynamic of sexism that plays into that. When we were hiring people, we realized that we were all women and we even hired a woman choreographer. So when we were hiring the acting teacher there were two candidates who we liked – a man and a woman. And we were like, “Oh, we should just hire a man already.” It was never really conscious. Everybody really likes the acting teacher who we hired, who is a man. My manager is a woman and her business partner is a woman and they are movers and shakers. They are new on the scene but they have so much respect from women and men who are hiring because they work their butts off. They are so much more conscientious than so many other people out there doing what they are doing because they know they have to be better and they have to work harder. It’s very cool to be part of that force.
LN: You were a duel major in college for English and voice. Did you get a degree in both and what did you focus on in your English degree?
LR: It’s so funny because I started with thinking that I was going to be a psychology major, I was going to be a sociology major, I was going to be an English major. I was going to push through all of these different things. And what ended up happening is that it kept me, I felt, from doing all the things I wanted to do. I enjoyed those classes immensely. If I had done English, I don’t know what I would have done. I always wanted to be a writer and I think the thing I grappled with was how can I do singing and writing? I would have had to give up one of those things. Through writing this book, I realized that I didn’t have to give up that. I never got far enough to actually emphasize in a specific area in English because I dropped my second major to devote more of my time to music.
LN: Do you have a few favorite authors?
LR: Yeah. I love John Steinbeck.
LN: Unlike some of your junior high school mates…
LR: Exactly [Laughs.] I also really love Jane Austin, though I haven’t read any of her books in a while. I love reading children’s fiction, like Judy Blume. I’m actually writing a novel now that is a young adult book.
LN: Speaking of role models, you mention that Anne Shirley [from Anne of Green Gables] is your literary soul mate. Can you elaborate on that?
LR: [Laughs.] Yes! First of all, she is a feminist. She didn’t let anyone sway her views about what she was supposed to be like as a girl, even though she did not fit into the convention. She was a very bookish, very intelligent girl who didn’t necessarily go with the status quo. I like that about her. I thought she was eccentric and I thought her view of the imagination – because I was always used to using imagination – was so unique and I related to that the most. And her fighting experience. She had to persevere through a lot of discrimination in the beginning. She eventually turned into one of the most well respected people in her community. I think she changed my life because I remember just sitting there watching TV with my parents and all of a sudden Anne of Green Gables came on and we would have changed the station, but I became riveted by the language. My mom says that my vocabulary changed when I started watching Anne of Green Gables.
LN: What role does Judaism continue to play in your life?
LR: It’s interesting. People ask me that a lot and it’s so hard to say. Certainly it’s a major role. As you read in the book, the bat mitzvah was such a big deal for me, being able to prove that I could do it. Certainly being embraced by the Jewish community as a singer when I was a young kid and people hired me to do gigs all the time and that was the start of my career.
LR: That’s a hard one!
LN: You must have had a few fantasies over the years.
LR: My first one was that I always wanted to be Christine in Phantom of the Opera. That’s what inspired me to sing classically, ironically enough. But now, I would love to do Cendrillon, which is the French version of Cinderella. I’ve done the Italian one, Cenerentola. I relate to her character so much – again that isolation and being stifled and needing to come through that, to triumph through that because of her attitude. I really do love that. The French version is so beautiful. I have sung scenes from that and I would really love to do that on stage. Also, I love early music. From Monteverdi, I’d love to do any opera of his. That would be awesome. I’d be happy to do anything, really, but those are definitely the biggies.
LN: What advice would you give our readers who want to become professional opera singers?
LR: The advice I would give them is to have an entrepreneurial spirit and definitely think outside the box. Don’t just think about what cookie-cutter path that an opera singer has because all of times it means having competitions, or joining a young artist program. There are other things you can do also. Try to find colleagues who you love to perform with and, by all means, perform with them. That’s the most rewarding. I also think that sticking with your mentors, because your mentors are the ones who will support you and help you forward. Be on the lookout for people who seem to be attracted to your particular talent and stick with those people and don’t ever be afraid of picking their brains and asking them to help you. They essentially really want to help you. The last thing is never stop enjoying it because the second you stop having that childlike enthusiasm about it, that’s when people start to become jaded and cynical. Always maintain the same enthusiasm for music that you had when you first got into it and if that means making yourself do a project with a friend or doing a concert of songs that you’ve always wanted to do.
LN: You talk about it in the book, but can you tell us what qualities you seek in a mate?
LR: It’s so funny because all of my partners have been so different. My last partner, Olivia, I was with for over four years and she was more of what you would think of as the Anne of Green Gables type, very bookish, used a lot of big words, very intelligent. When I think about what would really be a kindred spirit for me, I think music plays a lot into it. As much as I thought, oh maybe not being with a musician is good, you need to be away from music but I feel that I have been able to move forward in the world having somebody with me who is a musician. We can accomplish things together. It’s so special to have this organization with my partner and to learn ideas about each other and to see it come to fruition. That helps the passion of a relationship.
My first dream about being with a woman was with this very slight, small, delicate person and that’s exactly what Jenny looks like. It’s really weird. It’s remarkable how when she and I got together, I was like, “You’re just like the girl in my dreams,” in terms of body type. What I like about Jenny is that I think she has this quality, oh goodness, I don’t know how to describe it! It’s going to come off weird in writing. You know they say that you have to have the animus and the anima, the male and female parts of the soul, somehow I feel like we do. We both can embody being female and we both can embody having ideas and making decisions and wearing the pants sometimes. It’s so nice not having those restrictions in a relationship. At the same time, I know that one person might have a stronger desire to be in control at one given time or another. When I first got together with her, we could both talk about things that people usually don’t talk about, and I love that we could just, say, talk about poop. [Laughs.]