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Laurie Rubin paints with the colors of music

Mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin is accompanied by Jenny Taira at her childhood home in Encino.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin dreams in vivid color — though she’s been blind since birth.

Yellow? That’s the scent of ripe lemons and the warm sun glinting off her cheeks as a child in Encino. White is the crunch of snow and the feel of frothy shaving cream oozing between her fingers. Silver is the cool silkiness of chrome.

And brown? That’s the sound of B-flat. It reminds the singer of chocolate.

“I always joke that part of me can sense color from maybe having had a past life,” Rubin says. “When people say silver or purple, I understand what they’re saying.”

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Rubin’s new memoir, “Do You Dream in Color? Insights From a Girl Without Sight,” not only touches on her complex relationship with the color spectrum, it chronicles her against-all-odds rise from musical prodigy as a child in the San Fernando Valley to accomplished international opera singer.

“It’s not just a blind person’s story,” she says. “It’s everyone’s story.”

Of course, not everyone has performed at the White House and Carnegie Hall. On Tuesday night, Rubin will sing solo and do a book signing at American Jewish University. She’ll be accompanied on piano by her girlfriend, the composer Jenny Taira.

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On a recent visit to Los Angeles from Hawaii, where she and Taira live, Rubin relaxes in her childhood living room — a particularly colorful place, full of flowers, family photos and the wafting scent of vanilla candles. Rubin is easily taken back to the early days when she discovered her voice. During piano lessons as a 5-year-old, when her teacher hit certain keys, Rubin would sing the notes back in perfect pitch. Her teacher suggested that Rubin’s voice might be her true instrument.

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“Then I saw ‘Phantom [of the Opera]’ and it changed my life,” Rubin says. “I was almost 11. It was a month or two after I started voice lessons. I told my teacher I wanted to play the lead, Christine. And it snowballed from there.”

Life back then, says 33-year-old Rubin, was full of naysayers — Rubin was told she’d never live independently or hold down a real job, let alone fall in love and get married one day. To this, Rubin lets out a freewheeling chortle to punctuate the ridiculousness. She is an ambitious cook, applies all her own makeup before performances and she designs jewelry as a hobby, paying special attention to the shape and texture of pieces — she recently launched her own line, the LR Look. She and Taira have been together 10 years; they’re planning a wedding ceremony for next year, though Hawaii only recognizes civil unions.

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Rubin has also realized her dream of appearing in major operas. She played the lead, Karen, in Gordon Beeferman’s “The Rat Land” with the New York City Opera in 2007 and 2009, and Penelope in Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses” with the Greenwich Music Festival in 2008. She’s performed with some of her life-long musical heroes, including soft-rock singer Kenny Loggins and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade; and she was conducted by movie score composer John Williams at the Getty Museum in 2000. Included on her most recent classical album — also titled “Do You Dream in Color?” — is a poem that Rubin wrote, set to music by Bruce Adolphe; the poem eventually inspired the tone of Rubin’s memoir.

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None of this would have been possible, Rubin stresses, without the unwavering support she got as a child from both her family and Los Angeles’ Jewish community. Her brother taught her socialization cues she couldn’t have learned otherwise, including nodding her head or shrugging when talking with people. Her mother vehemently challenged teachers, summer camp directors and anyone else who doubted her daughter’s abilities. She insisted that Rubin be admitted as the first blind student to Oakwood, the same K-12 school that her brother attended. Valley Beth Shalom, the family’s temple, had her Torah portion translated into Braille so that Rubin could become the first blind bat mitzvah there.

Still, Rubin inevitably endured her share of loneliness, isolation and discrimination growing up. Those experiences sparked a secondary career in arts activism and education. She and Taira founded the Ohana Arts Performing Arts Festival and School in Honolulu for children, both blind and sighted, without the familial support or financial resources that Rubin enjoyed. Now four seasons in and with about 60 students enrolled, the summer program offers musical theater workshops, composing classes, and there are plans to launch a chamber music and orchestra program.

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With a grant from Yale, where she studied opera in graduate school, Rubin also developed a teaching curriculum that uses blindfolding exercises to help sighted students better understand what it’s like to live without sight. Rubin plans to take the program on the road while touring next year. This Wednesday, she’ll test out the curriculum at a private event at the Grammy Museum with a group of about 200 kids from around Los Angeles.

Although a blind, lesbian, activist mezzo-soprano might seem of niche interest, Rubin’s story — about both the quest to fit in and coming of age artistically and sexually — is a universal one. It’s also a plea to redefine what it means to be a so-called handicapped person, she says.

“I wanted to write this book as a way of getting people to be at home with a blind person,” Rubin says. “Not to think twice before employing one of them.” The blind, she notes, have an unemployment rate of about 70%.

Still, music remains the most powerful way for her to get out her message.

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Rubin and Taira are now planning a 2013 concert tour throughout the U.S., and possibly Europe and Asia, during which they hope to debut a pop crossover album they’re working on. For Tuesday’s concert, they’ll play a mix of classical songs from Giacomo Puccini and Georges Bizet, as well as pop and musical theater numbers from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Leonard Cohen and Stephen Schwartz among others. Rubin also will read from her memoir, which she hopes will resonate with as many people as possible.

“I can tell someone until I’m blue in the face that I want to be treated equally,” she says. “But if you share something through music, they’ll feel it personally.”

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Laurie Rubin performs from “Do You Dream in Color.” American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. Tuesday, 10:30 a.m. Tickets $10, members; $20, non-members (proceeds go toward student scholarships); (310) 440-1283.

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