RBG at the Opera

Reflecting on the justice’s deeply informed love for the art form, with testimony from some of current opera’s renowned singers of color.

by
Ruth Bader Ginsburg attends an opening-night gala dinner following a Washington Opera performance in October of 2000. Credit: Karin Cooper/Liaison.

When the beloved Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Sept. 18, at the age of 87, many — though certainly not enough — of the obituaries dedicated to her mentioned the integral role the opera played in her life. An enduring devotee of the arts, who counted her perfunctory cello playing as a highlight of her adolescence, Ginsburg’s appreciation for music and stories of humanity no doubt informed the thoughtfulness and empathy with which she handled her opinions.

We asked one of our favorite contemporary operatic voices, the multidisciplinary singer-composer Alicia Hall Moran, to think about RBG’s profound love for the idiom, and to contemplate the connections between the opera, RBG’s professional legacy and her own life in music. Along the way, she tapped several of her gifted colleagues to provide input. – Ed.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s virtuosities in consensus-building and in dissent changed America. The legacy of her passion, the ways she flexed power and privilege, is readable to me through the opera, its artists and characters. Choose a case, choose an opera and the stakes become clear — and they have rarely been higher.

During my undergrad years at Barnard College, it became clear that to be seen, women did well to make big choices. RBG has always been there right next to other heroines, a Zora Neale Hurston for the law: intrepid and unafraid to exhibit passion for her work. Later, at Manhattan School of Music, a powerful cohort of teachers fed me the characters and poems I needed to grow as an artist and singer. I also met my husband there. I love the way RBG structured her life with partnership first, showing that somehow, raising a family and pursuing a career can work — and showing that a musical mind can be the sharpest in the room.

On March 12, 2020, RBG indulged in her ritual, a night at the opera. Onstage, the illustrious mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges sang the role of Delilah at the Washington National Opera’s last performance of Samson and Delilah before the Covid-19 crisis shuttered theaters nationwide. RBG stayed for the after-party, and J’Nai asked her for any words of wisdom. “Oh no, you know what you’re doing,” she recalled the justice saying. “Keep inspiring people and keep being inspired.” And that is how a true diva moves in the world. As J’Nai, who also sang for the justice inside the Supreme Court, intimated, “RBG was able to make so many people feel seen, feel relevant, feel worthy, feel important. I want to do that with my voice.”

The time I saw the justice at the opera was at the Glimmerglass Festival in Upstate New York, on the night of the opera Blue as well as a public talk of her own, floating by in a flash mob of fans and followers.

In fact, RGB is the subject of an opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, by Derrick Wang; a song cycle about her life, The Long View, by Patrice Michaels; and an exercise book by her trainer Bryant Johnson. She hosted a program called “On Opera and the Law” for Glimmerglass, and appeared in the Washington National Opera’s The Daughter of the Regiment, by Donizetti.

Then there was the time the justice wore a sweatshirt with “Super Diva!” emblazoned across it during a televised workout with Stephen Colbert. I asked internationally lauded soprano Karen Slack about the moniker. “RBG changed lives. She got things done, she did the work. So she is also a diva to me. She changed generations. She’s had accomplishments not just handed to her but worked, earned, bled,” Karen answered. Let’s be clear. Divas work. 

Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking debates the death penalty, setting its morality and legality to music — RBG’s wheelhouse. It’s worth noting that J’Nai was the first Black singer to portray Sister Helen Prejean, and that Karen subsequently sang Sister Rose, Prejean’s confidant, in seven productions around the country.

“God’s love and forgiveness are a precious little consolation if we do not feel it for our fellow man,” Sister Rose sings. And I think of RBG in the court, particularly during the years after O’Connor had left and until Sotomayor arrived, when she was the only woman. “If I were queen, there would be no death penalty,” RBG said.

In an On Opera and the Law lecture, RBG chose her top five operas, and in the process reflected on Puccini: “Now Puccini. I could pick Bohème, Tosca, Butterfly, Turandot … I’m not going to pick any of those because the women don’t fare very well. They die of consumption, they’re insanely jealous … and poor Butterfly. But Puccini wrote an opera, The Girl of the Golden West, where Minnie saves her man from the gallows!”

Renowned baritone Kenneth Overton has performed the opera three times. The heroine is Minnie, who operates a saloon during the California Gold Rush. The opera cast is 98-percent men, and the soprano keeps the peace. “The woman is the central force,” Kenneth explained, “and she comes in like a force: There’s a bar brawl going on and she just rides in on her horse and fires three shots in the air: ‘Get it together, boys!!’

“When [Sheriff] Rance riles up all the guys,” he continued, “singing, We’ve caught him, we’ve got him, we’re going to kill him, she reminds us that her love for us was unconditional, and that she’s sacrificed the best years of her life.” 

As Kenneth told the story, I pictured RBG. “Watching Minnie plead for [the bandit] Johnson’s life at the willful sacrifice of her own is incredible,” he said. “Puccini gives us some of the most tumultuous, volcanic music in those moments. … She’s soaring over 40 or 50 men’s voices. … That’s where we see her as a woman, and not just our caretaker or our teacher.”

Is it any wonder RBG loved it? Or Beethoven’s Fidelio, whose heroine Leonore disguises herself as a man, infiltrates a political prison and liberates her dissident husband, saving her man and society, just like Minnie does? Hear Jessye Norman sing Leonore’s aria Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? (You monster! Where will you go?) with a vengeance.

Poor Tosca! Once thought too violent to even turn into an opera, Tosca’s villain is Scarpia, a corrupt chief of police who plays judge, jury and executioner one too many times — until he meets his match in Floria Tosca, the singer.

Excerpt from “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art”) sung by Tosca

I lived for art, I lived for love
I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of

“The first time I ever sang Tosca was in Rome, at the Basilica di San Clemente. When I first saw Castel Sant’Angelo, where Tosca jumps to her death, I just stood on the bridge and wept,” said the formidable spinto soprano Marsha Thompson. “Scarpia opposes freedom of speech. He wants control over everything he touches.

“People don’t understand what throes we are in,” Marsha continued. “We were dependent on RBG. And with her passing, democracy — and freedom for many marginalized groups in our country — is now in a quandary. Do we have the democracy that we thought we had if we are so dependent on the life or death of one individual on the Supreme Court of the United States of America?” 

“Justice Ginsburg, you’ve said that when you were just a child, your mother taught you to overcome unproductive emotions like anger, jealousy and fear, so that you could focus your energy and your remarkable powers of reason on serving others,” she was told as she accepted the National Constitution Center’s 2020 Liberty Medal, in a virtual ceremony replete with performances by operatic all-stars including tenor Lawrence Brownlee, soprano Renée Fleming, mezzo Denyce Graves and bass Soloman Howard.

As a singer myself, I know that in terms of vocal pedagogy, a singer wants both the internal freedom to soar and the anchor to keep it grounded. Tension and rigidity defeat beauty, yet completely going soft will not do, either. We need to strike a balance. Watching these singers, or any great opera singer, balance power with flexibility and freedom with emotion very likely would have helped RBG do the same at her job. 

Ginsburg talks with opera star Denyce Graves in D.C. in 2000. Credit: Karin Cooper/Liaison.

In the coming weeks, months and years, we’ll memorialize Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and sing her praises, and invoke Lady Justice, with her blindfold, beam balance and sword in hand. But just as appropriate would be to don a “Super Diva!” sweatshirt and do planks to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, her favorite opera. That is what I am going to do. Not because it is lighthearted, but because this opera and others trace the lines of tyranny back in time, and offer us wisdom on how to defeat it.

The best of the house of Krakenthorp have open but not empty minds
The best are willing to listen and learn
No surprise, then, that the most valorous Krakenthorpians have been women

– From Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s cameo in WNO’s The Daughter of the Regiment

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