Opera is an art known for thrilling ups and downs, high emotion, and the unexpected. It’s a drama familiar to the Supreme Court, where a single case can affect millions of lives and establish precedents observed for generations.
On the opening night of Donizetti’s "Daughter of the Regiment" on Nov. 12 at the Washington National Opera, the worlds of justice and opera will collide – for one night only – in the person of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Justice Ginsburg’s outspokenness over the anthem protests and the candidacy of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has made headlines this year. The furor has caused Mr. Trump, at least, to call for her resignation.
The senior member of the Court’s liberal wing, Ginsburg was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Since then, she has been steadfast in defending what she sees as women’s rights – and working to ensure that a woman’s socioeconomic status does not affect her reproductive choices.
Ginsburg’s outspokenness, particularly on political issues, is unusual for a justice. Twice this year, the justice has apologized for her remarks.
After criticizing the protests of Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who knelt during the national anthem, Ginsburg issued a statement two weeks ago where she described her comments as "inappropriately dismissive and harsh." She explained that she was "barely aware of the incident or its purpose" at the time she was asked about it, and regretted that she had commented at all.
Back in July, Ginsburg called her criticism of Trump "ill-advised." She had previously been outspoken in her opposition to Trump, saying he had "no consistency about him" and says "whatever comes into his head at the moment." House Speaker Paul Ryan described the overtly political statements as "out of place," while a tweet from Trump himself called for her resignation.
Despite the controversy sparked by her recent candid remarks, when she takes the stage next month, Ginsburg's words will be scripted – and yet no less her own. The justice will be performing the comic role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp, some of whose lines have been rewritten with Ginsburg in mind. One section uses words from her forceful dissent in the Shelby County v. Holder case, regarding the constitutionality of two provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
No need to worry about stage fright, either. Though this is Ginsburg’s first speaking role, she appeared as an extra in "Ariadne auf Naxos" in 1994 and 2009, as well as "Die Fledermaus" in 2003, along with justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy.
And opera is a staple in Ginsburg’s life. It’s a passion she shared with late Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she appeared with in "Ariadne auf Naxos," and which helped them bridge profound ideological divides. The Washington Post described the Derrick Wang opera, "Scalia/Ginsburg," an opera based on their bipartisan friendship and which will be performed at the Glimmerglass Festival next summer, as "an affectionate comic opera look at the high court."
As for Ginsburg’s future on the Court, it may depend what happens in November. In 2014, Ginsburg told Elle Magazine that she was not yet ready to retire, saying she would stay, "as long as I can do the job full steam." Another consideration is her replacement: Ginsburg has suggested that she would like to be replaced by another left-leaning justice.
But she noted that retirements would not be unexpected under the next occupant of the White House, given that several other justices are nearing 80.
"She is bound to have a few appointments [to the Supreme Court] in her term," Ginsburg said to CNN of the next president, her pronoun use perhaps implying that she believes a Clinton victory is likely.