The lights dim, and mezzo-soprano opera singer Laurie Rubin walks onto the stage. The orchestra, waiting for the conductor’s cue, freezes in a moment of silent anticipation.
Then the conductor’s baton drops and the piece starts. The strings and winds blend seamlessly with Rubin’s undulating voice.
But while Rubin’s performance seems effortless, her musical journey has not been easy: Rubin has been blind since birth. For most performers, keeping time with the conductor and orchestra requires eye contact, but Rubin’s professional musical dialogue with the orchestra and the conductor results from years of overcoming physical and emotional challenges.
On Sunday, Rubin will make her debut with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall and will perform the U.S. premiere of composer Bruce Adolphe’s “Do You Dream in Color?,” a piece based on a poem authored by Rubin on her experiences with blindness. The orchestra, conducted by music director Jeffrey Kahane, will play this piece as part of its second concert of the season. The concert will also feature a performance by French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras.
An alumna of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Yale University, Rubin has performed at prestigious venues such as New York City’s Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. It was at the Lincoln Center, Rubin said, that she met Adolphe and began working with him on pieces and arrangements.
Per Adolphe’s request, Rubin composed a poem about her life without sight, and the pair began to collaborate on “Do You Dream in Color?,” with Adolphe setting music to the text. Simultaneously, Rubin had started to draft a memoir titled “Do You Dream in Color?: Insights From a Girl Without Sight,” which was scheduled to be released after the piece was completed, Rubin said.
“I knew that I wanted to talk about being a blind artist and the challenges I had to go through, but also how rich my life is,” Rubin said. “So when Bruce first asked me to collaborate, I (felt it was) an honor to have a composer write for me and help me get things out into music that I couldn’t easily say in words.”
Rubin said color has always been an elusive concept and, consequently, was a major focus of her memoir and poem.
Over the years, Rubin said she has come to view color as an idea that she, even through her blindness, can enjoy just as much as a person with sight can.
“When I think of (the color) blue, I think of the cool ocean and the key of G major, and when I think of green, I think of youth and the smell of leaves and grass,” Rubin said. “But at the same time, I feel like I do have a visual understanding of color and when somebody says ‘blue,’ I really feel like I do see blue.”
For Adolphe, composing a piece based on the sensitive subject of blindness proved to be a challenge. Yet, Adolphe said Rubin’s poem inspired him to write a piece, originally for piano and voice and later arranged for orchestra and voice, that would disprove the false perception of blindness and focus instead on Rubin’s accomplishments as a virtuoso vocalist.
“(Writing the piece) was a very big challenge, because (Rubin’s) being blind and talking about how people react to her and her sense of color was very different from my own realm of experience,” Adolphe said. “How Laurie perceives color, especially, is almost a poetic concept, so what she’s talking about (in her poem) is purely metaphorical: I didn’t try to imagine what she sees, but how she feels.”
Rachel Fine, the executive director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, said inviting Rubin to perform with the award-winning orchestra was not a difficult decision because of her talent and charisma with crowds.
“Laurie contributes in unique ways to her artistry, and I chose her (to perform) solely because she is a superb singer, and I’m confident her talent will come through (on stage),” Fine said. “We’ve also worked with Bruce many times in the past and his and Laurie’s collaboration is sure to be excellent.”
With the premiere of “Do You Dream in Color?,” Adolphe said he hopes the audience enters Rubin’s world wholeheartedly and without any preconceived notions.
“I think it would be great if audiences don’t have preconceptions of what they’re about to experience,” Adolphe said. “Laurie’s absolutely fearless, and the only thing I would suggest to audiences is to try to be as fearless as Laurie.”