Crutches or No, Irene Gubrud's Opera Debut Was a Soaring Song of Courage

UPDATED 12/14/1981 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/14/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

No one doubted that Irene Gubrud could sing. The 34-year-old lyric soprano was, after all, a winner last year in the prestigious Naumburg Competition (PEOPLE, Aug. 18, 1980). The question as she made her operatic debut last month was whether Gubrud, whose legs have been partially paralyzed since childhood from a carnival-ride accident, could move about the stage through four grueling acts of Puccini's La Bohème. She answered with a performance that brought an audience of 1,700 to their feet cheering.

"This is something I've wanted for as long as I can remember," Gubrud enthused afterward. Though she has established a much-acclaimed recital career, grand opera had always been closed to her. "But I was determined," she says. "Opera is meat and potatoes for a singer." Finally the year-old Opera St. Paul gave the Minnesota-born performer a chance. "We're a small, new company," says director Virginia Hardin Olson, "so we can be flexible."

As Mimi, Puccini's tubercular seamstress, Gubrud went onstage leaning on a single black crutch. Only minor re-staging was necessary; for her final entrance, as the dying heroine, she was simply carried onstage by the hero. "The most difficult part," she says, "came when Mimi has to help her lover-to-be, Rodolfo, search for her key on the floor. I had to get down and up by myself." She managed.

Gubrud was quick to acknowledge the encouragement of the cast (she smiled when, just before curtain time, someone wished her luck with the traditional "Break a leg!"). She also had the support of Steven Finch, 34, a tenor, aspiring choral director and now, as she puts it, her "serious date. It's so wonderful not to be lonely." Looking ahead, Gubrud feels she could be comfortable in physically undemanding roles like Desdemona in Verdi's Otello, but adds, "I'm not out to prove I can do everything, just what is credible." How about the Met in New York? "I think it's possible," she says. "This much of my dream has come true. Why not the rest of it?"

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