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Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Who Sang Iowa Opera's Praises

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sits for a portrait in the Lawyer's Lounge at the Supreme Court of the United States.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sits for a portrait in the Lawyer's Lounge at the Supreme Court of the United States.

During the twenty-seven years she served as a Supreme Court Justice, RBG was known for her passionate dissents, fierce advocacy for women’s rights and her deep appreciation for the art of opera.

After a long fight with pancreatic cancer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at age 87 on September 18. A mere eight days after Ginsburg’s death, President Donald Trump had already announced his new nominee for the Supreme Court. Shifting the focus away from the buzz surrounding this controversially timed decision, let us remember the late icon as a person, not just a political figure or an empty seat on the nation’s highest court.

During the twenty-seven years she served as a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg was known for her passionate dissents, fierce advocacy for women’s rights and her deep appreciation for the art of opera.

From opposite sides of the political spectrum but united in their love of opera, Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia were close friends and regular attendees of opera performances at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

In a 2015 interview with WFMT Chicago, Ginsburg said that Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni were close contenders for her first and second favorite operas. Ginsburg also said that Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Verdi’s Otello and Puccini’s La fanciulla del West are works she wanted everyone to know.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, like Scalia, maintained a close friendship with Ginsburg for over half a century. Totenberg wrote in her obituary, “Ruth really did love being ‘the notorious RBG.’ At the opera, when her tiny figure, wrapped in a coat and babushka, would enter the Kennedy Center opera house from a side entrance, I don't know how, but people would see her, and the roar would begin, soon followed by a standing ovation, and loud cheering.”

Ginsburg even had the opportunity to grace the Kennedy Center stage, albeit for only one night in a non-singing role. She made her operatic debut as the Duchess of Krakenthorp in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment on November 12, 2016. In an NPR interview with Totenberg prior to her performance, Ginsburg declared, “What’s there to be nervous about?”

“Ruth really did love being ‘the notorious RBG.’ At the opera, when her tiny figure, wrapped in a coat and babushka, would enter the Kennedy Center opera house from a side entrance, I don't know how, but people would see her, and the roar would begin, soon followed by a standing ovation, and loud cheering.”

At that point, Ginsburg herself had already been portrayed on the operatic stage in Derrick Wang’s 2015 work, Scalia/Ginsburg. In it, the fictionalized Supreme Court justices spar over constitutionality through a libretto of the figures’ own words. The music is set in the styles of the justices’ favorite composers, including Händel, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Offenbach, Bizet, Sullivan, Puccini, Strauss and others. Wang’s website cites Ginsburg calling the opera “a dream come true.”

Ginsburg's love of the opera also sparked unexpected friendships outside of the Supreme Court. In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Aspen Institute executive vice president Eric L. Motley remembers bonding with Ginsburg over Bach’s Goldberg Variations at a dinner party back in 2002. Once again, despite differing political ideologies, the pair sparked a strong friendship that lasted until her death, sharing opinions on music and writing with one another. Ginsburg had previously been scheduled to perform a private wedding ceremony for Motley and his fiancée on the very day she died.

Dr. Linda K. Kerber, a professor in the College of Law at the University of Iowa, was also a friend of Ginsburg’s. A pioneer herself in the study of legal history and U.S. women’s history, Kerber used Puccini’s Madama Butterfly to frame her argument about “the stateless and the citizen’s other” in her 2006 presidential address to the American Historical Association. Kerber and Ginsberg had attended opera together on multiple occasions.

In the wake of her death, Michael Egel, the General and Artistic Director of the Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO), shared scans of the personal correspondence he had with Ginsburg spanning the past four years.

RBG Letter to Michael Egel
Michael Egel, DMMO
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pens a letter of praise to the Des Moines Metro Opera.

In an email to friends of the DMMO, Egel said, “She first took note of DMMO in 2017 when we were producing one of her favorite works, Billy Budd. Although she wasn’t able to attend that summer, I kept in correspondence, always hoping that her schedule would allow her to travel out to Iowa for the festival season. She was delighted at the prospect of our recent Virtual Festival and wrote to tell me. I sent her DVDs of Billy Budd, and I only hope she was able to view them in August [2020] as she had indicated she might.”

Ginsberg's son, James Ginsburg, inherited his mother’s love of classical music. He is the founder of Cedille Records, an innovative, non-profit Chicago based classical label. His wife, soprano Patrice Michaels, released her album Notorious RBG in Song through Cedille in 2018.

The first nine pieces on the record are Michaels’ own compositions, which aim to paint a portrait of Ruth through song, detailing the life of the Supreme Court justice. She sings four other composers’ work to round out the record, including Stacy Garrop’s “My Dearest Ruth,” which puts the words of Martin Ginsburg’s farewell love letter to Ginsburg to music, and Wang’s “You are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution,” from Scalia/Ginsburg.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a revolutionary in her field and made major contributions towards the fight for justice and equality for all in the United States. Though her liberal politics and sharp dissents were strong, her friendships transcended partisanship, especially when it came to fellow opera fanatics.

Ginsburg’s love of the opera sparked when she saw her first opera, a condensed version of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, in 1944 at age 11. That love endured through the following seventy-six years, up until she became the first woman and Jewish person to lie in state in the United States Capitol at her memorial service on September 23.

One of her favorite singers, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, performed the spiritual “Deep River” and librettist Gene Scheer’s “American Anthem” at the ceremony. The chorus of the latter is sung: “Let them say of me / I was one who believed / In sharing the blessings I received / Let me know in my heart / When my days are through / America, America / I gave my best to you.”

Never have such fitting lyrics bid a true opera fan adieu.