Music allows sightless artist to fit in

“I dream what I experience.... I dream the smell of flowers, or the taste of chocolate cake....”

From “Do You Dream in Color?” a poem by mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin, who was born blind.

“Britten, Haydn, Mozart & Bruce Adolphe,” presented by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and led by LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena on Saturday, Oct. 19, and at UCLA's Royce Hall on Sunday, Oct. 20, is part of the citywide, L.A. Opera-curated “Britten 100/L.A.: A Celebration.”

The eclectic program includes Britten's “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge,” Mozart's “Serenata Notturna,” K. 239, Haydn's “Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major,” performed by noted cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras — and the premiere of the full orchestral version of “Do You Dream in Color?” by composer Bruce Adolphe, with text by critically-acclaimed mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin, in her LACO debut.

Veteran composer, author and educator Adolphe, whose operatic and theatrical works for noted artists and organizations have been produced across the country, approached Rubin about a collaboration after hearing her perform in New York and inviting her to do a children's concert at the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center, where he is the family concert director. Adolphe was inspired, he said, by the singer's voice, described by Los Angeles Times Music Critic Mark Swed as “darkly complex and mysteriously soulful.”

“I asked if she had any particular poetry that she liked or if she had friends who write poetry,” Adolphe said. When Rubin sent her choices via email, her comments about them “were so evocative,” he said, “I started to feel her own writing might be a solution.

“I went out on a limb and asked, how would you feel about writing about the experience of being blind?”

Adolphe didn't know that Rubin was then in the process of writing her own book. (The book, “Do You Dream in Color? Insights from a Girl without Sight,” was published late last year.)

“But I'm not really a poet,” Rubin said, “so I was so worried that it was going to be hokey. That it was going to be one of those things, you know, where people expect blindness to be profound. And to me it's not profound. It's just how it is.”

Reluctant at first, Rubin sat down at her computer “and started writing like crazy,” realizing that Adolphe had given her the opportunity to address misconceptions that sighted people often have about “what a blind person is like,” she said. “You don't usually go, ‘Hi, my name is Laurie and I'm a normal person.'"

Make that a normal, notably accomplished person. In addition to her solo recital, concert and operatic career, Rubin and her life partner, musician Jennifer Taira, are co-founders of both Musiqe à la Mode Chamber Music Ensemble and Ohana Arts, a performing arts festival and school in Honolulu, where Rubin is associate artistic director.

The Southern California native, a graduate of Oberlin College with a Master of Music degree from Yale, gravitated early toward classical music. If being blind made Rubin feel different from her peers at school, she said, “being a classical music dork definitely set me apart. So when I was feeling isolated in junior high and high school, I went to music programs. There, people didn't care that I was blind, they bonded with me because we had something in common. When they heard me sing, I became more human. I could do the same thing they could do.

“Music was where I really fit in socially,” Rubin said, “and I loved it so much anyway that I decided that it was what I wanted to do.”

Struck by how often people ask if she “sees” color in her dreams — “rather than ‘how do you match your clothes,' or something more logistical” — the singer used her poem to explain that she dreams what she experiences, and that includes “the paradox of color,” Rubin said.
“People don't expect blind people to have color in their lives. People don't expect blind people to have lots of things in their lives. I do have color in my life. I have love in my life. I have all of these wonderful rich things in my life that you would associate with just being ‘normal.'”

The poem asks the title question four times, and Rubin provides four different answers.

“First, it's how I put on make up and have this career,” she said. “Second, it's about how I make jewelry and how I see color; third, I'm talking to a child [who explains] what color is to me,” something that has happened in real life, Rubin said.

The fourth verse answers the “skepticism that some people have had toward my career — ‘we can't put you on stage,' ‘you can't compete with a sighted person.' This allows me to say that there are a lot of things you don't think I can do, and if I can prove to you that I do all these things, maybe you can see how I can fit on stage.

“And it allows me to then ask other people if they are bound by limitations,” Rubin added. “Sighted people see color, but do they allow themselves to dream and achieve those dreams?”

It all came out in the poem, she said.

The structure of the poem, Adolphe said, “feels like four scenes from a mini opera. It goes in different places musically and poetically, but it always starts from that question.”

“It was a challenge,” he said. “I didn't pretend that I know what it's like to be blind; I just tried to get inside Laurie's text as much as possible. I wanted to be emotionally realistic. I didn't want to exaggerate or underplay anything and I didn't want the music to get in the way. I wanted to really support what it was like for her to say these things.”

In its first incarnation as a work composed and performed for voice and piano — previously recorded by Rubin for Bridge Records — Adolphe used pedaling, harmonic textures and “various aspects of sonority and resonance” to try to convey the poem's language of changing colors, he said, but he came to feel that the work should be orchestrated, “because of the length and depth and subject matter.

The musical textures “are very intimate,” Adolphe said. “There's a violin solo and the winds are treated as soloists much of the time. There's vibraphone and harp together giving very delicate colors. The feeling is that it's multiple chamber groups.”

(The LACO program marks the first performance of Adolphe's full orchestral composition with Rubin's complete text, he said; a shorter version for orchestra, encompassing three of Rubin's verses, was performed in April in Lucerne, Switzerland, by the Human Rights Orchestra.)

“It's been a unique thing for me,” Adolphe said of his collaboration with Rubin. “You never know when you meet people or hear performances where it's going to lead, and this has been one of the more personally satisfying projects that I've worked on because of who Laurie is and how amazing she is.”

What: “Britten, Haydn, Mozart & Bruce Adolphe,” performed by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Where: Ambassador Auditorium, 131 S. Saint John Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19. Also, Royce Hall, UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, L.A., 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20. Pre-concert talks one hour before curtain.

Cost: From $25.

More info: (213) 622-7001,


LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.

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