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Music review: Mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin at AT&T Center Theatre

March 9, 2012 |  2:08 pm

Laurie Rubin
A young mezzo-soprano whose voice is darkly complex and mysteriously soulful and who adds intense emphasis to every word of text sang six songs by the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo on Thursday night at the AT&T Center Theatre. In one, a bee bites the lip of a sleeping shepherdess as if it were a rose, to the envy of a shy lover.

Laurie Rubin's rich, toffee-thick tones conveyed not just the sense of touch of puffy rosy lips but also their exceptional redness.

It would hardly occur to a listener that Rodrigo had been blind. Nor might someone hearing Rubin’s new recording of the Rodrigo songs, say on the radio, suspect the mezzo is without sight. In recital, of course, that is obvious. Whether this makes her a different sort of singer than one who sees was the question posed by this short recital and equally short colloquium, which was organized by the noted USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and presented by the university at the theater inside the AT&T Center highrise in downtown L.A.

Rubin -- who grew up in Encino and who, as a high school senior, won a Music Center Spotlight Award in 1997 –- has allowed herself to mature slowly. Her first major solo recital CD (on Bridge) is out this month. Her memoir will be published in the fall, and a recital tour will follow next year.

The back story is, of course, fine for publicity, but there is also the danger it will typecast her. She has worked her way through elite vocal programs at Yale University and Bard College. She is feisty and has operatic ambitions, having already appeared in a few productions. She is a writer with a chatty blog. She makes and designs a line of jewelry (she was wearing her own earrings on Thursday). And as if there weren’t enough challenges to her singing career, she has chosen to live in far off Hawaii, because she likes it there.

Not able to make eye contact with her audience, Rubin appears to sing from the inside out, and this was something she addressed directly in the West Coast premiere of Bruce Adolphe’s “Do You Dream in Color?” (which is also the title of her CD). The text is Rubin’s and it answers a question often asked her.

In this long, personal, prosaic but fascinating text (the piece is about 20 minutes), Rubin comes to terms not so much with her own perceptions of colors but with other people’s perceptions of her perceptions. Adolphe sets the text in an effective quasi-operatic style reminiscent of Samuel Barber. The crystalline piano part was excellently played by Adolphe’s wife, Marija Stroke.

The colloquium that followed included Damasio, Rubin, Adolphe and Jim Weiland, a USC professor of ophthalmology and biomedical engineering. Rubin explained how she manages to function very well, even on the opera stage. With a little practice, she can find her way around just as she can in her own home. Thus far, though, few directors have been willing to trust that she won’t hurt herself.

Damasio posed the most telling question. Would Rubin, who was born without functioning retinas and who has never seen anything more than light, wish to be given sight, if a medical operation could accomplish that? She answered, probably not. She wouldn’t know what to do with what she fears would be information overload. She is not an incomplete artist, she said, and, in fact, she has developed certain sensitivities that might be lost.

Weiland then gave the example of a blind skier whose sight was restored and he could no longer ski until he realized that all he had to do was close his eyes.

Rubin appears to have already realized that. She sings magnificently with eyes wide shut. A major, and maybe great, career beckons. But she is also ripe for exploitation.

In “Do You Dream in Color?” she reveals how her visual imagination is not hampered by retinal dysfunction. But, in fact, it will be the deepening of her inner vision through her voice where her power as a singer-seer lies.

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-- Mark Swed

Photo: Laurie Rubin at the AT&T Center Theatre on Thursday night. Credit: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times.

 

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