Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a well-known opera lover and a powerful proponent of the art form. While she usually enjoys the opera from a seat in the audience, the popular liberal justice and women's rights advocate got to fulfill an operagoer's dream Saturday as she made her opera debut onstage, alongside such singers as Lisette Oropesa and Lawrence Brownlee in the Washington National Opera's "La fille du régiment."
This is not the first time Justice Ginsburg has made a cameo appearance onstage. But this is the first time she has had a significant, if small, operatic speaking role, appearing as the Duchess of Krakenthorp.
The French comic opera by Gaetano Donizetti, first performed in 1840, was altered somewhat for Ginsburg, a common practice for the performance of the duchess, which is often played by celebrity figures. The justice's lines, which she wrote herself, included topical political humor and were spoken in English.
According to reviews of the opening night performance, Ginsburg was a hit with the audience in a welcome moment of levity after nearly a week of post-election uncertainty after Donald Trump's upset victory against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
The general plot of Donizetti's comic opera goes like this: A girl, Marie, is adopted and raised by a regiment of soldiers, and has adopted the exaggerated and decidedly unladylike mannerisms of her many male parental figures. She falls in love with a wandering Tyrolean, Tonio, in typical mid-nineteenth century operatic fashion after he wanders into camp one day and fires off nine high C's in one of the bel canto period's most impressive tenor arias.
After that, Marie's biological aunt, the Marquise of Berkenfield, comes by to ruin the budding romance between the two and spends most of the second act trying to teach her to conform to the social norms expected of a lady in 1840, arranging a marriage between the Duchess of Krakenthorp's nephew and Marie.
But, comic opera being what it is, everything works out, with Tonio joining the army to get the approval of Marie's regiment of fathers and the Marquise turning out to be Marie's mother, making the wedding between Tonio and Marie possible.
The Duchess and her nephew leave the happy couple in a huff, clucking about the sad state of women today with no regard for traditional gender and class roles.
Opera, often criticized by those who don't know the art form well as an out-of-touch historical relic, is one of the most enduring forms of musical expression. Invented in the late 16th century, opera was originally the Renaissance's attempt to restore ancient Greek drama to the stage. Since then, the art form has evolved to remain relevant to each successive generation, with opera consistently being produced and adapted by composers for over 400 years.
While "La fille du régiment" is not exactly a piece of hard-hitting Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk by any stretch of the imagination, there are plenty of opportunities in the opera for Ginsburg's 21st-century women's rights perspective to shine. At one point in the opera, she noted that the best leaders of the house of Krakenthorp were "persons with open but not empty minds, individuals willing to listen and learn," before turning to the audience and asking, "Is it any wonder that the most valorous members ... have been women?"
Ginsburg's positive reception was partially due to a cathartic embrace of the liberal ideals she has fought for throughout her life, in light of what many worry is as a crushing setback after the election of Donald Trump, who has received heavy criticism for derogatory comments about women made before and during his campaign. For many operagoers on Saturday, Ginsburg's onstage persona was a rallying point after a discouraging loss.
The WNO audience was especially appreciative of lines written by the justice, including one where she asked to see the birth certificate of Marie before she could approve the marriage between her and the Duchess' nephew, a clear reference to the Obama birther movement she has openly decried in the past. At the curtain call, the octogenarian justice brought several audience members to their feet as she curtsied to the crowd.
While Ginsburg's operatic debut involved no singing, fans of opera and the justice have had the opportunity to see the character of Ginsburg sing onstage in a comic opera by Derrick Wang entitled "Scalia/Ginsburg," which premiered in 2015.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.