The Arty Semite

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Opera

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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If all goes according to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s plan, we’ll be seeing her on the bench next term. And if all goes according to Derrick Wang’s plan, we’ll also be seeing her on stage. To be precise, it won’t be the Jewish Justice herself in the spotlight, but an opera performer playing Ginsburg.

Wang, a musician and recent graduate of the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law, is composing an opera titled “Scalia/Ginsburg,” based on Justice Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia’s legal opinions. Somehow, when Wang read the opinions, he heard music — despite (or possibly, because of) the passionate positions Scalia and Ginsburg have taken from opposing wings of the Court.

“I realized this is the most dramatic thing I’ve ever read in law school… and I started to hear music — a rage aria about the Constitution,” Wang told NPR about Scalia’s dissents. “And then, in the midst of this roiling rhetoric, counterpoint, as Justice Ginsburg’s words appeared to me — a beacon of lyricism with a steely strength and a fervent conviction all their own. And I said to myself, ‘This is an opera.’”

It turns out that irrespective of their views on constitutional interpretation, Scalia and Ginsburg are good friends who happen to share a love of opera. (Ginsburg often lectures on the intersection of opera and the law.) When Wang requested the Justices’ permission to use their words for his opera’s libretto, they both happily gave it. However, they pointed out that in view of the First Amendment, there was actually no need for Wang to ask their permission.

Wang is setting the Justices’ words to a score using musical themes and styles of composers such as Verdi, Puccini and Bizet. The opera’s plot has the bombastic Scalia and the demure Ginsburg locked in a room, from which they cannot get out until they agree on a constitutional approach.

In one part, the liberal Ginsburg character sings to her conservative colleague:

How many times must I tell you, dear Mister Justice Scalia,
You’d spare us such pain if you’d just entertain this idea.
You are searching in vain for a bright-line solution,
To a problem that isn’t so easy to solve.
But the beautiful thing about our Constitution is that
Like our society, it can evolve.

The University of Maryland plans to premiere excerpts of Scalia/Ginsburg this fall, and the Washington National Opera and its young artists program will also give it a partial airing.

In the meantime, Ginsburg and Scalia were reportedly delighted by what they saw and heard at a special preview for a small audience in the East Conference Room at the Supreme Court on June 27.

“The truth is, if God could give me any talent in the world, I would be a great diva,” Ginsburg said.


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