A plea for those who see to have more vision

Laurie Rubin is a talented mezzo-soprano, but she says some people think that talent isn't enough when you're blind.

Published October 5, 2006

Mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin says being blind is not the biggest problem she faces as she makes her way in the world of classical music.

The real hurdle, she said in a recent phone interview, is the skepticism she faces from opera directors, conductors, artist managers and concert presenters who are instrumental to a singer's career.

"To be a blind person in the field, you have to be better than everybody else," Rubin said. "You can't just be as good as sighted people; you have to be better for them to take a chance on you."

Rubin, 27, a Southern California native who was born blind, is at the beginning of her professional career. She settled in New York two years ago after graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the opera program at the Yale School of Music. She has had some significant accomplishments, including recitals at Wigmore Hall in London and the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, a performance at the White House during National Handicap Awareness Month and an impressive array of vocal prizes and fellowships.

In a 2004 article, New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote of the "earthy, rich and poignant qualities" of her singing of a contemporary work called Target by Keeril Makan.

Noting Rubin's blindness, Tommasini said, "it's impossible to say whether her communicative power draws on emotions stemming from her disability or whether her compelling artistry comes from a deep part of her that has nothing to do with the sense of sight. In any case, she gave a courageous performance of difficult music that clearly speaks to her."

Rubin will sing as part of the 25th anniversary celebration of VSA arts of Florida being held Friday and Saturday at Ruth Eckerd Hall. In 1997, she received VSA's Young Soloists Award. The mission of the organization (VSA stands for "Very Special Arts," though the group officially uses only the acronym) is "to create a society where people with disabilities can learn through, participate in and enjoy the arts." Other events this weekend include workshops on wheelchair dancing and painting for people with visual impairments, as well as a performance by Asher Dance Eclectic of MAD Theatre.

Rubin's recital, with pianist Jennifer Taira, winds up the proceedings Saturday night with music of Mozart, Rossini, Sibelius, Gershwin, Copland and Rorem, followed by an artist talkback and dessert reception.

"We're trying to change perceptions," said Marian Winters, executive director of VSA arts of Florida. "The distinction between a performer with a disability and one without a disability should not be made. The performer transcends the disability."

When she was at Oberlin, Rubin sang the title role of Rossini's opera La Cenerentola (Cinderella) in a student production. It was "one of the most powerful experiences I've had," she said, but trying to get cast by opera companies has proved to be discouraging. In general, directors have a tough time imagining a blind singer who could master the acting demands of a role under the tight deadlines of a typical rehearsal schedule.

"A lot of directors have a very limited time to work with people," Rubin said. "They really need somebody who can just be like pretty much a machine and get up on stage and do the role."

However, she offers a challenge to doubting directors. "I try to tell them that the whole reason one gets into directing is to be creative. Why not take something like a blind person in a role and run with it? Sometimes it's fun to be different because you get to brainstorm and see what works and what doesn't work."

Then there's the issue of liability, a particular peeve of Rubin's. "People are so concerned I'll fall off the stage. Hey, if I can navigate around a hot stove and walk the streets of New York City, I don't know why they're so concerned about me learning to navigate the stage."

Opera singers and classical musicians with disabilities are not unheard of. German baritone Thomas Quasthoff, born severely deformed because of thalidomide, has sung in high-profile productions of Fidelio and Parsifal. The spectacular Scottish percussion soloist Evelyn Glennie is deaf.

In 1999, Andrea Bocelli played the title role in Massenet's Werther at Michigan Opera Theater, and he made his entrance on a horse. "That's so cool!" said Rubin, who admires the blind balladeer for his crossover success.

Nevertheless, given the obstacles, both real and perceived, for a blind opera performer, Rubin is concentrating on recitals. "You can do all the repertoire you like. And I love art song, which is basically poetry set to music by wonderful people like Schubert."

Though musical scores are available in Braille, which Rubin reads in several languages, she learns a song mainly by ear. "I have a hard time with Braille music because I find it too linear. I have the pianist I'm working with play things out."

The singer also listens to "bunches of recordings," she said, and by the end of the learning process has a "virtual sheet of music in my head."

Rubin, who has a guide dog, a 4-year-old black Labradoodle named Mark, enjoys being an advocate for the blind.

"I'm not either the super blind person or the helpless one but somebody who leads a normal life," she said.

"The one thing I'd love to see more blind people doing is acting on TV. Why not have a blind person on a show like Sex and the City? Why not have a main character who just happens to walk in with her guide dog or cane? It would be no big deal. That's what I'm pulling for."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.