She was 'The Notorious RBG' in court, but one of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's real passions was opera
'When I go to the opera, I leave all the briefs on the shelf and just enjoy the great performances'
US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on September 18 at the age of 87, will be remembered as an unparalleled jurist, a feminist icon and a pop culture phenomenon.
The force of her achievements saw fans from all walks of life posting tributes online, with some gathering on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington for an impromptu memorial. One nod that would have likely deeply touched Ginsburg was the dimming of lights at opera houses across the US.
After all, dazzling costumes on the opera stage piqued her interest before the flowing black robes of the highest court in the land.
Her legal career made her a pioneer, and her 2013 dissent when the Supreme Court ruled to 'strike down' a provision in the Voting Rights Act gave birth to the moniker The Notorious RBG. This nickname was given with respect by young fans, and it stuck. It is a play on the name of gangster rapper The Notorious BIG.
But before she was associated with one of gangster rap's most legendary names, she dreamed of being on the opera stage. There was one issue though, she couldn't sing (her words, not ours).
"I saw my first opera when I was eleven. I loved the combination of glorious music and high drama,” she told The LA Opera. “I thought then, how grand it would be if one fine day I could be on stage during an opera performance. It seemed an impossible dream because, alas, I cannot sing.”
While she went on to hit high notes from the pulpit of the Supreme Court as a leading judicial voice for gender equality, women's interests and civil rights, her love for opera never abated.
In fact, it was one of the few things that helped her switch off. "I tend to be consumed by my work… I'm thinking about it when I go to sleep,” Ginsburg said in an interview with streaming service Pandora. "But when I go to the opera, I leave all the briefs on the shelf and just enjoy the great performances."
With Puccini I could pick La Bohème, Tosca, Madam Butterfly and Turandot, but I am not going to pick any of those because the women don't fare very well
RBG on her favourite operas
She was also a regular presence in Washington’s theatre scene, with some of her favourite productions coming from the Shakespeare Theatre Company. According to its artistic director and her friend Michael Khan, she attended more than 30 shows. Other theatres she visited included the Arena Stage, and Ginsburg was recorded as being in the audience there 42 times from 1999 onwards.
So what kind of opera did Ginsburg appreciate? As she explained in a 2015 interview with Chicago broadcaster WFMT, she loved the lush romantic classics.
"My all-time favourite is The Marriage of Figaro, but on some days my answer would be Don Giovanni. It is a toss-up between those two wonderful Mozart operas," she said. “Number three is not necessarily my favourite opera, but it is close. It has the part I'd most like to have if I was diva. That part is The Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss. Then we, of course, must have Verdi and from his very wonderful operas I would pick Othello.”
In Der Rosenkavalier, The Marschallin is a 32-year-old woman who rails against forced marriage and plots to save a younger woman from suffering the same fate she did.
Ginsburg also said she loved Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West for reasons that are befitting of The Notorious RBG. “With Puccini I could pick La Bohème, Tosca, Madam Butterfly and Turandot,” she said. “But I am not going to pick any of those because the women don't fare very well... but Puccini wrote The Girl in the Golden West where Minnie saves her man from the gallows.”
The collars and statement necklaces she wore over her judicial robes had the air of the operatic costume, and interestingly, her own life’s journey became a production all its own. After all, decisions she made from the pulpit were high stakes, and her enduring friendship with fellow judge, ideological rival and fellow theatre fan, the late Antonin Scalia, was a great yarn.
Their relationship dynamic was explored in Derrick Wang's 2015 comic opera, Scalia v. Ginsburg, a well-received show that recalled some of their momentous cases to pieces from Verdi and Puccini as well The Star Spangled Banner.
Ginsburg's grandest stage moment, however, arrived in 2016. In a dream come true, she took the stage in full regalia for a speaking part in a Washington National Opera production of Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment.
Starring as Duchess of Krakenthorp, her performance was given extra zing as parts of the dialogue were based on her own addresses in court.
That final curtain image of a beaming Ginsburg giving a curtsy to a standing ovation is an elegant summation of how she fashioned her life into a work of art by chasing her passions with unwavering grace and persistence.
Updated: September 19, 2020 07:08 PM