Submitted by: Laurie Rubin
The experiences I've had as a classical singer have been incredibly rich ones thus far. I've been blessed with wonderful mentors, lucky to get some of the wonderful and fun gigs I've gotten, and so fortunate to collaborate with some very fine composers and to sing with some of the best singers and instrumentalists in the field.
As a singer who is blind, I have done recitals and chamber music more than I have done opera. This is due mostly to a minor logistical difference between me and my sighted counterparts. Since opera is a business that needs to be run smoothly like anything else, artistic directors are concerned with productivity and tasks getting done as quickly as possible. When they see me, they envision a situation where it would take longer for me to learn a stage, they think it would take more people to guide me around the stage, and they often think of lawsuits should I manage to find myself falling into the orchestra pit during a rehearsal.
However, things are slowly changing, and I am finding more and more that directors are wanting to think outside the box. They can envision a situation where a character in the show would be blind. Well why not? It is never mentioned in the libretto that she specifically has sight.
More and more, I am so pleasantly surprised by directors who have a new vision, ones who not only think outside the box, but artists who actively believe in me as an artist, and who specifically envision my interpretation of a role.
This past October on one of those crisp autumn days, I did my routine morning email check before hurrying off to an appointment. I received a note that was sent directly to my website. It was from a colleague of mine who I hadn't seen in more than six years. I hadn't known him very well. He was a student at a summer program I went to one summer. In the email, he explained to me that he was now running a very successful music festival in Greenwich Connecticut, and that they would be doing their first opera, and that it would be fully staged. He asked me to play the female lead, Penelope in Claudio Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses."
My first reaction was elated shock. How did Ted remember my voice? How did he think of me? Was he sure he was talking about the blind girl from our summer at Chautauqua?
"My appointment can wait!" I thought, and immediately picked up the phone and dialed the number he left in his message to me.
"Hello," said the official but young sounding voice on the other end.
"Is this Ted?" I asked tentatively.
Indeed it was, and for about fifteen minutes, Ted explained in depth what his festival was all about, how it had been written up in several publications, and how he would like me to play the role of Penelope in the opera which would have performances on June 11th, 13th, and 14th with rehearsals starting a month prior to that.
I did manage to figure out in some way that yes, he did mean to call me, Laurie Rubin, the blind singer. He had not inadvertently contacted the wrong person.
Though this was quite surreal, I would indeed be playing a lead role in a fully staged opera, my first one since college.
As the rehearsal process was getting closer and closer, details were worked out. I would be commuting from New York City to Greenwich Connecticut daily on the train. Though I found this a little bit daunting as a blind girl who has never found orientation and mobility her strong suit, my excitement seemed to propel me into a new state of confidence.
Mark and I reviewed the route from the 2 subway train to the 7, and then learned how to wend our way through crowds and by making subtle right and left turns hither and thither, we found our way to the information booth with the large clock in the center of Grand Central Station. A wonderful mobility instructor who had worked with me on getting to know the in's and out's of New York years earlier had stepped in to give us assistance in learning Grand Central Station. In that time alone, I learned just how many skills Mark had. He has been able to distinguish a subtle left from a sharp one. He was able to find the big counter in the middle of a room which to me seemed like finding a needle in the haystack.
So a month ago, I began this new adventure. The commute was going smoothly, and Ted, the other cast members, the conductor, and the coordinator never questioned my ability to get where I needed to go as a blind person.
As we began our staging process, Ted explained to me that I would be walking on and off stage myself, and that he would add texture to the stage so that I would be able to walk a straight path on stage. I was shocked at Ted's intuition. So many times, I work with directors who struggle to find a way for me to move around independently on stage. They are hesitant to let me go it alone, and solicit the help of other cast members. Ted was the first person to think of finding a tactile way, rather than a visual one, to allow me to orient myself to the stage.
In addition, Ted seemed to find a vocabulary of words that I as a blind singer could understand. Instead of asking me to use visual gestures that meant sadness, fear, anger, happiness, and the gambit, he asked me to keep still, to let this come through in my singing. He asked me to move my hands only if I felt compelled to do so. He explained that a queen, the wife of Ulysses, would be rather contained. He painted a picture of a character that I could relate to not having vision. If something wasn't working visually, he found a tactile or emotionally organic way of explaining it.
In the only other production where I played a lead role, the director insisted that I portray a historical anachronism of blindness, complete with dark glasses, and a broom to act as a cane. This director felt I needed to shove the fact of my blindness down everybody's throats so that it was evident. I played it grudgingly because I knew that if I argued it too much, I would be labeled "the difficult blind singer." Here I was trying to break down barriers and dispel stereotypes, and forced to play those very same stereotypes on stage.
However, as Ted has helped me cultivate the character of Penelope, never once was I forced to do anything that spelled blind, nor did I have to wear it like a sign.
Penelope, in this version of "The Return of Ulysses" simply is. If an audience member interprets blindness, that's one way of looking at it. Others may simply see a strong woman who has been reduced to grief after twenty years of waiting for the love of her life. Others may see her as a symbol of faith. Whatever the interpretation people take away from it, they will see a production that was directed with class and care. I will simply be doing what I do best, and what Ted has been telling me to do all along, to be myself, to feel Penelope's emotions the way I could imagine feeling them.
As other cast members slowly trickled into the rehearsals, I was amazed
over and over again how wonderful all of their voices are, and how
lovely all of them are as people.
As I sit here on the day of the dress rehearsal, I think back on all the rehearsals with a bit of a lump in my throat. I have been extremely touched by the whole process.
Magically, this director found me and seemed to know what I was capable of. I was in a cast of lovely people who never for a moment thought I wasn't equal to them from a visual or vocal standpoint. The orchestra, made up of some of the best Baroque instrumentalists in the Country pierces me every time they play.
In a business that is so much like a roller coaster in it's extreme up's and down's, I realize that this music festival is somewhat of a utopia. It is also a real treasure perhaps off the beaten path of classical music. The Theater at St. Catherine's is like a warehouse, and reminds me of the theater I saw Rent in before it went to Broadway. It creates a striking juxtaposition with the opera you will see and hear there, and the minimalist feel of it allows you to truly hear and feel the emotions and relationships between characters.
I will miss commuting to Greenwich every day when this is all over with, and since you never know what life will bring you when you wake up every morning, I hope I wake up to another email or phone call from Ted telling me we're either taking this show on the road, or to hire me for a new adventure with one of his cutting edge and innovative projects.
For details for the Greenwich Music Festival and Monteverdi's Return of Ulysses, please visit: www.greenwichmusicfestival.org.
Performances: 7:30 PM WEDNESDAY JUNE 11 & FRIDAY JUNE 13 & SATURDAY JUNE 14
Photo description: dress rehearsal, 2 men, 2 women, all dressed in white. One man is kneeling while the others stand behind him...the woman standing directly behind the kneeling man appears to be singing to him.