Superfan Ginsburg Cast Loving Light On Operatic World

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Tenor Lawrence Brownlee escorts Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her operatic debut as the Duchess of Krakenthorp in Donizetti’s ‘Daughter of the Regiment.’
(Scott Suchman, Washington National Opera
, 2016)

COMMENTARY – The opera world has lost a great friend.

The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has resonated in many ways. Her influence was far more significant, of course, in the realm of the law. Still, it’s worth noting that she perhaps had become the most famous opera fan on earth.

Many of us delighted in “RBG sightings.” I can recall seeing her on first nights at Washington National Opera, chatting amicably in the aisles with her friends, especially Justice Antonin Scalia, the court’s other great opera buff. Their friendship even inspired an opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, by Derrick Wang, which had its 2015 premiere at the now-defunct Castleton Festival, with a later performance at the Glimmerglass Festival and elsewhere, along with a public radio broadcast. I found it rather substandard, but it is not without champions (both justices apparently loved it).

At WNO, RBG often found her way backstage after performances, to the utter delight of the singers. She developed a warm friendship with Francesca Zambello, WNO’s artistic director, which led to her regular visits to the Glimmerglass Festival, Zambello’s other company. There, for nine years, Ginsburg would take in a weekend of opera while hosting an annual concert program featuring young singers: “Law and Opera with R.B.G.” I can recall my own excitement when one year, she was seated directly in front of me. On the one hand, this enhanced my view of the stage, as she was tiny. But her charisma was such that it affected my concentration. A burly security guard sat a few seats over, trying unsuccessfully to pass unnoticed.

Opera aficionado Ginsburg chats with Francesca Zambello, artistic director at both Glimmerglass and Washington National Opera. (Karli Cadel, Glimmerglass)

Ginsburg was a true fan. Zambello said that she came to every performance of Wagner’s Ring at WNO. Her passing leaves a vacuum in the opera world. There are simply no public figures of that stature with such a powerful passion for classical music. It wasn’t always this way. Both opera and concert music were nurtured by royalty, of course. And for centuries, classical music was embraced by “the quality.” Right up to the middle of the last century, it was taken for granted that powerful, educated, and wealthy people would regularly flock to classical performances, which they had sponsored as well.

Change is a part of life, of course. Most of our leaders live incredibly busy lives these days, and classical music makes certain demands on the audience. You know…sit still, turn off phone, concentrate. Of course, there are many of us who can argue that this is an investment worth making, that music is the magical solvent that makes a busy life worthwhile.

Opera companies everywhere do manage to attract elite audiences, especially for their gala nights. Each season, the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night draws a very fashionable crowd for a performance and dinner afterward, with a red carpet for wealthy donors in extravagant couture gowns. This event, and similar ones across the globe, raise a lot of money and are fun to watch. The women who often head these up are justly championed for the money they donate and raise. Many are also passionate music fans.

That said, we live in an age when the vast majority of our leaders rarely show up at the opera house or the concert hall. In the decades I’ve been going to the Met, I only recall a few real celebrities who were regulars, especially Paul Newman, Rudolph Giuliani, and William F. Buckley, Jr.

At the Kennedy Center, the sole political figure I recognized as a regular operagoer was David Gergen, adviser to four presidents. I’m sure there were other leaders who came there – the political establishment is huge – but Gergen was the one regular I spotted.

Here in Atlanta, I once spied Ted Turner across the foyer at an Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. I was reviewing it for the local newspaper, so I really wanted to get a quote from him to liven up my story, but he went inside before I could reach him. At intermission, quite by accident, he wound up directly in front of me in the men’s room line. This presented a dilemma: Should I introduce myself and get the quote? I decided against it, reasoning that I would have been invading a sanctuary of sorts.  

But my favorite celebrity sighting was at San Francisco Opera at the 2000 premiere of the opera version of Dead Man Walking. I arrived early and was surprised to see television cameras from local stations in the foyer. Sean Penn, one of the stars of the movie version, had arrived to see the opera and was being interviewed. Just as this was happening, I spotted Jake Heggie, the opera’s composer, walking across the foyer and observing the proceedings, alone and unnoticed.

Justice Ginsburg poses with the Glimmerglass production staff at a mural of Ginsburg by Daniella Ibrahim. (Karli Cadel, Glimmerglass, 2018)

Back to Justice Ginsburg. She was a real advocate. Opera meant something to her and she did her best to convey her enthusiasm.

I asked Francesca Zambello for her thoughts on RBG, and this was her response:

“A few weeks before COVID closed the world of the performing arts, the Cafritz Young Artists and I had a unique opportunity to bring a reduced version of The Consul to the Supreme Court private chambers and perform for the Justices and their guests. Because of RBG and her love of opera, she held occasional musicales at the court to allow the Justices a chance for private performances. Many great artists performed in the private reception room by the court and we at WNO were honored to often be part of these presentations. This tradition was started by Sandra Day O’Connor and carried on by RBG. 

Rob Ainsley, Director of the Cafritz Young Aritst Program, and I wanted to do something different than just a concert, an actual opera, so we asked her if we could present a one-hour version of The Consul with piano (approved by the estate) as we knew many immigration issues were being hotly debated. We had already presented the opera in various locations as a kind of outreach work, but all these were previews leading up to what we each knew would be our most important showing of the piece. We arrived in the morning to rehearse in the chambers like a funny band of traveling players, carrying our costumes and props into the Supreme Court. How strange to be telling this story of political dissidence, government overstepping their reach and visa frustrations under the noses of our country’s greatest powers. RBG always loved meeting the annual crop of new young artists, and this was a special year with some powerhouse voices, especially that of the woman playing Magda, Alexandria Shiner (MET winner 2020). The performance was gripping in close quarters and as Magda sang these words she stared into the eyes of certain Justices.”

MAGDA
To this we’ve come:
that men withhold the world from men.
No ship nor shore for him who drowns at sea.
No home nor grave for him who dies on land.
To this we’ve come:
that man be born a stranger upon God’s earth,
that he be chosen without a chance for choice,
that he be hunted without the hope of refuge.
To this we’ve come.

(To the Secretary)

And you, you too shall weep!
If to men, not to God, we now must pray,
tell me, Secretary, tell me,
who are these men?
If to them, not to God, we now must pray…
Who are these dark archangels?
Will they be conquered? Will they be doomed?
Is there one, anyone behind those doors
to whom the heart can still be explained?
Is there one, anyone, who still may care?

Tell me, Secretary, tell me!

“After as she threw the papers in the air screaming ‘Papers, Papers,’ the room was electric and on fire. I shall never forget this, nor will anyone there. RBG attended our WNO openings of Samson and Delilah and Don Giovanni a few weeks later, but she told me over and over how much she loved the simple and direct performance of The Consul so close to the halls of justice.” 

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in Atlanta, where he works as a development officer with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.