A Paralyzed Soprano Finds 'Hire the Handicapped' Is Only a Slogan at Most Opera Houses

On the way to one of the severest tests of her career, the lyric soprano sang softly to herself in the airplane seat. The downpour at New York’s La Guardia Airport seemed inauspicious: For her, getting around is not easy even in fair weather. But with the same determination she has shown since a carnival-ride accident left her partially paralyzed, 33-year-old Irene Gubrud forged ahead on crutches, braving the rain to hail a taxi. “When you can’t carry an umbrella,” she says, “you learn to walk through the storm.”

That week last May in the Juilliard Theater turned into triumph. After dazzling nine notoriously unsentimental judges at the Naumburg Competition (a kind of Olympics of singing), she beat out 150 other contestants to win one of the four first prizes. The victory confirmed what audiences at her concert performances with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia orchestras already knew—that Gubrud ranks among today’s finest singers. But so far her injured legs have barred her from opera, her first love and, she notes wryly, “a soprano’s bread and butter.”

Gubrud first heard opera on the radio in Canby, Minn., where as a toddler she used to stand on the kitchen table and sing along with the arias. The youngest of four children and only daughter of an electrician, she took up the flute at 9. Four years later, when her safety belt snapped on the Loop-O-Plane at a county fair, she was thrown to the concrete. A championship diver and just-qualified cheerleader, she suffered smashed vertebrae and a damaged spinal cord. She could barely move her body from the waist down. After three months in a body cast, she resumed flute practice in a wheelchair. “Music was a liberation from my body,” explains Gubrud, who won a statewide competition within six months of the accident. “It was the one area where I could be free.” When she was fitted with metal braces (which she wore for eight years), she sobbed. “I was in mourning for my legs,” she says.

But Gubrud vowed, “Just because I’m handicapped doesn’t mean I have to be crippled.” Later, at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., professors encouraged her to concentrate on voice studies, although she was rejected by the school’s famed traveling choir because of her crutches. At 19, she broke her left leg below the knee in 30 places in an auto accident. The setback only steeled her will to walk again. “Miracles happen every day,” she insists. A St. Olaf classmate shared her faith, and in 1968 they were married. The couple divorced in 1971 because, Gubrud says, “We realized we were better friends than husband and wife.”

By then she had made her debut at Carnegie Recital Hall. Subsequent victories in competitions sponsored by the Concert Artists Guild and the Ford Foundation led to her first professional engagements. In 1972 she confidently signed up for a Metropolitan Opera audition, rehearsed five arias and, feeling “well prepared and in good voice,” sang her heart out. She was offered a scholarship and a chance to tour, giving recital programs with the Met’s rookies, but the house had no place for a partial paraplegic in its regular performances. Gubrud ruefully concluded, “If I was ever going to sing opera with a major company, I was going to have to walk.”

She moved from Manhattan to Chicago to work with John Scudder, a former aeronautical engineer who had devised a therapy program of exercise and meditation. “Her feet were like limp flags at the end of flagpoles,” he recalls. After three years under his care, she was “walking” one day with two therapists when they released their grip on her elbows. She took three steps—and fell. On the next try, seven steps. And on the next, 19 steps. “Then I picked myself up and walked for two minutes,” she says, “the first time without crutches in 18 years.” Two weeks later she taped her ankles heavily and walked unaided to center stage while appearing as soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of the late André Kostelanetz. The audience gave her a standing ovation. “I paid no attention to it,” she remembers. “I had to sing.”

Gubrud lives alone on Chicago’s South Side and moves during the school year to St. Louis, where she is artist-in-residence at Washington University. She is now dating a Chicago businessman. “I’d like to go to discos,” Gubrud says with a smile. “But he doesn’t dance.”

Walking without help strains her neck and constricts her voice, so she still must rely on crutches. But Gubrud perseveres. “I can’t watch life,” she says, “through a closed door.”

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