“Sandra tells me you’re an opera singer!”

So began the conversation the afternoon I met Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Friday, March 25, 1994. The Justice was mid-way through her first Term at the Court, where I had been working at the IT Help Desk for two years. 

She had a pair of tickets to a performance at the Kennedy Center that evening and her husband Marty was unable to join her. She had asked Justice Sandra Day O’Connor if she could accompany her and been told about my musical avocation. We chatted very briefly since she had much work to do, and she gave me my ticket and a CD of the artist we’d be hearing; she’d been given a copy by the presenting organization but already had one.

Later I met her at our seats in the Concert Hall, where we chatted about all things operatic before the performance and at intermission; I have never known anyone outside the business with a more encyclopedic knowledge of the art form, though I have known many within it who knew much less than she.

After the concert, we attended a reception in the Terrace Restaurant, where I got to meet Nina Totenberg and Cecilia Bartoli, whose Washington recital debut we had attended. I had long been a fan of Ms. Totenberg from listening to NPR, and Ms. Bartoli’s recital was an absolute delight, including no fewer than six encores. But what made the night most memorable for me was meeting the woman who would some years later refer to herself as the president of my fan club.

The following year Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg co-sponsored a performance of the music of Samuel Barber that some friends and I put together. Calling ourselves the Amici Curiae String Quartet and the Amici Curiae Chorus, we performed a program beginning with Barber’s poignant Adagio for Strings and ending with his nine-minute comic opera, A Hand of Bridge.

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. . .”

After our evening with Cecilia Bartoli, the Justice would occasionally offer me tickets to dress rehearsals and performances she was unable to attend. As she was already in the habit of attending Washington Opera productions—opening night, and sometimes the dress rehearsals just before them—I had no way to return these most appreciated favors.

Then in the summer of 1995 I was cast in a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in a community theatre in Herndon, Virginia. I offered the Justice a pair of tickets, and to my delight she said she and Marty could attend the August 12 performance. 

Since this was the summer following the Oklahoma City bombing, security for government officials had ramped up considerably, though still not to the levels they would reach post-9/11. The Justice was coming during the second weekend of our show, so during the Wednesday night brush-up rehearsal we were visited by two Supreme Court Police Officers (both of whom I knew from work), who checked out the theatre space to see where the exits were, etc. I made sure to let them know there would be a gunshot sound effect during the show; they examined the prop pistol both that night and on the night of the show.

Saturday evening the entire cast and crew were abuzz with excitement as we awaited our special audience members. Before the curtain, cast-members were peeking through the black-out curtains to catch a glimpse of the Justice, but once the very intense show began we all had jobs to do and mostly forgot about their presence, except for the fact that one of the Police Officers was stationed in the theatre lobby, through which we had many entrances and exits.

After the show, the Justice and Marty came up to congratulate us. The Justice told me she had been concerned when I as Sweeney Todd threw Mrs. Lovett into the huge oven onstage; she said it looked like she was going to hit her head on the oven door opening, but we walked over to show her there was plenty of clearance. Later the Herndon Gazette published an article noting the Justice’s attendance at the show. I don’t have a copy anymore but remember the line, “Wearing a cream-color Donna Karan pantsuit, the Justice was accompanied by her husband. . .” Elsewhere in the article the reporter asked if it bothered her to see a Judge killed onstage. Her reply: “I’m a Justice, not a Judge; it doesn’t bother me.”

The next week at work I received the first of many notes on “The Chambers of Justice Ginsburg” stationery, reading in part, “One must see to believe your total transformation into the Fleet Street barber, ever more demon as the production progresses.” She also requested that I keep her informed of any future performing plans, which I did. Between her all-encompassing work at the Court and her busy music- and theatre-going schedule she couldn’t attend everything, but she and Marty came to a number of performances over the years.

A way with words: “Sondheim and Bergman Would Have Smiled.”

I am not a lawyer, though I have played one onstage. Still, I usually try—perhaps too hard—to put words together carefully, whether speaking or writing, sometimes spending more time editing my own words than an unimportant email message to the Court’s computer users might really warrant.

As Justice Ginsburg and I began to correspond via email, I became especially keen to make sure my words conveyed exactly the tone I was looking for; not to impress, but to be informative yet casual, while still respecting her position, etc. As you might guess, I wasn’t always successful. An email of several tortured sentences or even paragraphs from me would invariably be met with a concise response, rarely more than a couple of sentences, and often implying much more than the few words said on their own.

When she and Marty attended a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, her brief note afterward complimented the performers and then concluded, in a short sentence that made reference to the Swedish film that inspired the show, “Sondheim and Bergman would have smiled.” 

Over the years our correspondence was usually prompted by an email from me with the subject line: “Opera News,” as I had been instructed to keep her informed of any performances I had coming up. These were followed by a short email or a note on exquisite stationery (sometimes word-processed, sometimes handwritten) from her. Blaise Pascal and Mark Twain notwithstanding, I would edit and word-smith endlessly, while a letter or email would increase in length despite my efforts, and only after sending it—or receiving her reply—would I see how it might have been made shorter/better. 

For brevity and elegance of communication she remains my ideal.

The Blizzard of 1996

It was well known during the tenure of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist that the Supreme Court did not close for a mere snowstorm. He grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a few inches—or feet—of snow were not going to keep the Court from its appointed duties.

From January 6-8, 1996 Washington was hit with a couple of major snowfalls. While most schools and government agencies were closed,  the Supreme Court, true to form, remained open, since there were oral arguments scheduled that week. Because the cases to be argued are typically scheduled months in advance, and the attorneys arguing them have made arrangements to be present on the appointed date, postponing them was not a light matter. 

At the time, my friend Bo LeNoir was living in the basement apartment of a Georgetown townhouse owned by Frank Lorson, then the Court’s Deputy Clerk. Since Bo’s employer, George Washington University, was closed, he planned to drive Frank to the Court in his 4-wheel drive Jeep Wrangler. When the Court Police phoned Frank to see if he needed a ride to the Court and were told he had a ride, they asked him if his driver would mind swinging by the Watergate to pick up Justice Ginsburg; Frank and the Justice were good friends. Of course Bo agreed, as he did when the Police called a few minutes later to ask if they would also pick up Justice Breyer in Georgetown.

For three days that week, Bo drove the two junior Associate Justices and the Chief Deputy Clerk to the Court for oral arguments, which involved delicately  hoisting  Justice Ginsburg into the back seat of his two-door Jeep. At Court, he got to sit in the gallery as their guest, and then drove them back home, listening to their discussions of the cases, of which they even sought his impressions. This sparked his budding interest in pursuing the law as a career, and when he decided to apply to The Catholic University School of Law, he got two sterling letters of recommendation. Justice Ginsburg liked his choice of school, noting that “Catholic University has a wonderful Summer Opera Theatre!” As Bo asked later, who else would advise someone to choose a law school based on its proximity to an opera company?

A Judicial Maid-of-all-work

“And I, your little Ruth!” are the words the “piratical maid-of-all-work” in The Pirates of Penzance uses to refer to herself.

The Washington Savoyards was a professional theatre company focused for most of its existence on presenting the works of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. Like many in the legal profession, Justice Ginsburg was quite an afficionada of Gilbert & Sullivan, and would quote from the operettas when appropriate. A line she sometimes used in memos to her judicial colleagues to inform them she could not join their opinion was taken from The Pirates of Penzance, “Beautiful Mabel, I would if I could, but I am not able!”  Some years earlier, then Associate Justice William Rehnquist attended a Savoyards performance of Iolanthe, which gave him the idea of adding those somewhat controversial gold ribbons to the sleeves of his robe when he became Chief Justice.

After I performed in a 1996 production of The Pirates of Penzance, which Justice Ginsburg attended with her law clerks of that Term, the Savoyards asked me to invite her to participate as emcee in a fund-raising gala performance to be held the following year in the rotunda of the British Embassy in Northwest Washington. She agreed on condition that no advance notice of her participation could be given; she took the judicial code of conduct seriously.

The producers gave me a script for the event to pass along to the Justice. It was well-written, but she rewrote large parts of it to reflect her own style more closely. She introduced herself: “I am Ruth; the judicial maid-of-all-work!” Her re-write also included additional lore about the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, appropriate to her introductions to the various selections being performed.

She even added some trivia of which some of the Savoyards were unaware. In a note after the gala she wrote, “A few people asked the source of my reference to Sullivan’s using the ‘Sparkling Eyes’ melody [from The Gondoliers] twice. Enclosed, a page from Martin Green’s Treasury of Gilbert & Sullivan (1961). Cheers on a great performance.”

One of the greatest regrets from my very minor career as opera impresario is my failure to bring another Gilbert & Sullivan project to fruition: a production of Trial by Jury that was to have taken place at the Supreme Court in 1997 or 1998. Working with the Savoyards and friends from the Washington Opera Chorus, we assembled a cast of singers, although Justice Scalia insisted on playing the Foreman of the Jury himself. Also, Chief Justice Rehnquist requested we add a speaking part for him. There were discussions of enlisting Nina Totenberg to sing at least part of the opening chorus, “Hark, the hour of 10 is sounding” as a solo, appropriate given her long career of reporting on the Court. Sadly, the whole project collapsed due to logistics and scheduling problems.  But the greatest casting coup was my getting a tentative agreement from Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg to appear as non-singing members of the Chorus of Bridesmaids. 

Concurrence and Dissent

The Supreme Court thrives on the confidentiality of its internal deliberations, and I think many of the discussions I had with Justice Ginsburg, whether written or spoken, must fall under this veil of secrecy. Her operatic tastes were wide-ranging, but there were certain styles of modern music of which she was less than enamored. Similarly, she didn’t always care for updated productions that, to make up an example, set Handel’s Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) in a mid-20th century authoritarian state, or placed Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the midst of an American political campaign*. In a March 2001 interview given as an intermission feature during a broadcast of Manon, she delivered her opinion: “The key questions are, does it work with the music, and is it consistent with the characters’ character, as the composer and librettist envision those?” She went on to compliment a production of Rigoletto set in Little Italy that worked “remarkably well.” Because we spoke candidly about matters of singing and staging, I have selected only those discussions that will not result in hurting anyone’s feelings.

Prior to WNO’s 1999 production of Massenet’s Le Cid, in which Music Director Plácido Domingo would sing Rodrigo, or “El Cid,” I mentioned to her that in the opening scene the chorus of soldiers was to sing, “Rodrigue est jeune encore pour être chevalier,“ meaning, “Rodrigo is still young to become a knight!” Given that Domingo was then approaching 60, I wondered whether the projected surtitles might “finesse” the translation somewhat to avoid unwanted giggles from the audience. Her tactful reply: “Marty and I will attend Le Cid’s opening October 30. We will look for you and for the translation. Domingo is glorious, but he surely is not jeune encore.” With a keen eye—and ear—for emerging talents, she went on to say she had enjoyed the company’s Rigoletto, in particular, “. . .a remarkable Gilda, a beautiful, truly jeune Russian, Anna Netrebko.”

A year earlier Domingo had conducted the company’s Samson et Dalila, and due to a scheduling conflict with the two tenors alternating in the title role, he sang, rather than conducted, the final performance. The Justice wrote that although this opera had never before moved her to tears, Domingo’s performance of the scene in Act III, when Samson has been shorn of his power-giving locks and then blinded, and is yoked to a grain mill, had made her weep.

In 2007, WNO produced Wagner’s Die Walküre, the second installment of its “American Ring Cycle.” The Justice enjoyed the performance, and we had an extended email discussion about the updated settings, some of which seemed open to some interpretation as to what they were meant to signify. We agreed that Act I was very effective, its cabin in the woods location and the behavior of Hunding toward his wife Sieglinde making it clear that she was not happy. The two scenes of Act II took place in what appeared to be lavish office in a high-rise overlooking “Gotham City,” and then the trash-strewn area underneath a freeway overpass. She suggested “Bonfire of the Vanities,” while I thought it resembled more the rumble scene from “West Side Story;” she decided to join my opinion.

I once ran into the Justice and Marty Ginsburg leaving the theatre after a performance of a rather “cutting-edge” production of Puccini’s perennial favorite, La Bohème, both with somewhat sombre expressions on their faces. Being discreet, I said, “I won’t ask what you thought,” to which Marty replied with a wry smile, “We particularly enjoyed the children’s chorus!” This production had cut the children’s chorus from the famous café scene in Act II; Marty’s comment instantly elicited an ear-to-ear smile from his wife.

Many people have commented on the fact that Justice Ginsburg maintained a close friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia, despite their well-documented disagreements on many matters of constitutional interpretation. But even in their operatic tastes there was room for differing opinions. After the Ginsburgs and Scalias attended the Met’s Madama Butterly directed by Anthony Mingella, which used bunraku puppets to depict the young child of Madam Butterfly and Lt. Pinkerton rather than a child actor, Justice Ginsburg confided to me that Justice Scalia hadn’t cared for the puppet, preferring to see an actual child. Justice Ginsburg and I (who had seen an HD broadcast in the movie theatre) found the puppetry quite moving.

On another occasion, when Justice Scalia was lamenting the fact he hadn’t found time to attend the opera much of late, I asked him what he had last seen; he mentioned the WNO production of Gerswhin’s Porgy and Bess, going on to say, “But that’s not an opera!” I decided not to argue with him, but feel certain Justice Ginsburg would have respectfully dissented from that opinion of her dear colleague; she specifically mentions the Gerswhin as one of her favorite 20th century operas.

* I am poking fun partly at myself here, since in 2005 The Forgotten Opera Company produced a Don Giovanni set in modern times, in which the title character, which I played, was a U.S. Senator running for President. Also, the role of the Commendatore was changed to a retired Supreme Court Justice—whom I had to kill “accidentally” in the opening scene. The Justice, who attended along with her husband and Chambers staff, took it all in stride and was very complimentary.

Navigating the online universe

On more than one occasion I was asked to train the Justice in using the computer. Early in the Court’s MS-Windows era, I had the pleasure of helping her become more adept at using a mouse by playing Solitaire. Being left-handed, she wanted to use the mouse with her left-hand, so we in the IT department always knew to go into the settings to reverse the buttons on her mouse; while this could lead to confusion with the terms “left-click” and “right-click,” it seemed easier for her to use her left index finger for most clicking tasks, so we tried not to refer to that as “left-clicking.” 

Watching anyone play solitaire on a computer is less-than-engrossing, but I was happy to see her clicking skills improve slowly, though click-and-drag remained more of a challenge. Initially I was unsure whether she knew the rules of the game—would someone who was such a diligent student as a child and young woman, and who now spent countless hours reading briefs ever have had time to learn a card game primarily used to waste time? I needn’t have worried; she never missed an opportunity to shift the stacks of cards around, and insisted on finishing a game before moving on to other tasks. 

Some years later the Justice asked for lessons on searching the internet. I spent quite some time preparing a detailed lesson so I could be sure to show her the websites I thought she would find most interesting and useful. I thought perhaps using the web browser Opera would spark her interest, but our IT department’s configuration control folks rejected the idea.

Our first lesson came to a grinding halt when a Google search—on herself, at my suggestion—took us to her Wikipedia entry, which she found to be full of misrepresentations and downright factual errors. In particular, she was astounded to read that her father supposedly didn’t approve of her childhood nickname, Kiki. “He never called me anything else!” was her rebuttal. I explained to her that Wikipedia entries could be created and edited by almost anyone, and offered to correct the errors in her entry. She agreed to this and said she would send me a list of factual errors.

After a few weeks, in which time I had come to guess the Justice had more pressing work and had decided against updating her Wikipedia entry, I received from the Court’s Public Information Officer (referred to in the press as “Court spokesperson”) several pages of corrections to be made. After consultation with our Information Security folks, we decided I should make the corrections to Wikipedia from my home computer, so that the edits wouldn’t be traceable to an IP address linked to the Court.

She was grateful when I reported to her the changes had been made. Of course many of them have been un-made in the intervening years; such is the nature of the Information Age!

Memorable nights at the opera

During the years I sang with the Washington National Opera I had a friend who would sometimes give me a heads-up about the coming season well before the public press release. I made it a point to share this information with the Justice. As I didn’t always have information about who would be singing in the upcoming operas, she would sometimes recall singers she and Marty had heard in the various operas many years before. 

When Richard Strauss’s Elektra was announced for the following season, she mentioned having seen Birgit Nilsson sing the role at the Met. She also recalled performances of Puccini’s Turandot with Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli, and Anna Moffo, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. These reminiscences, and especially two particularly historic performances for which she had been present, made me think of interviewing her at length to discuss some of the singers from those “golden years” she had witnessed. 

Those two historic evenings were: March 4, 1960, the tragic evening on which the great American baritone Leonard Warren gave his final performance, dying onstage in the middle of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, or “The Force of Destiny;” and the evening of the Met debuts of Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli in Verdi’s Il Trovatore on January 27, 1961. On that happier occasion, the Justice had the good luck to be seated in the audience next to Ms. Price’s mother. 

The great Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova was singing the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades in Washington, which prompted the Justice to remember having seen her at the Met as Amneris in Verdi’s Aïda in the 1970’s, accompanied by her son, who couldn’t understand why the tenor wasn’t interested in this vibrant, attractive woman, rather than her rival, the soprano singing the title role. 

When it came to the operas of Richard Wagner, the Justice certainly had the requisite stamina to make it through those long evenings. When WNO was preparing to perform his final opera in 2000, she wrote, “Attended Parsifal only once—some 30 years ago at the old Met. I had the box to myself for the Good Friday Spell [in Act III]. All others, including Marty, gave in to hunger after four hours.” She later took Justice Scalia to see the Met’s new Robert LePage production of Die Walküre, telling me she had advised him that Wotan’s long Act II monologue would be a good place for a nap if he felt he needed one, as it was just a re-cap of the action thus far. In 2016 the Washington National Opera performed Wagner’s four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) three times; Justice Ginsburg attended all performances, or twelve nights of Wagner over the space of three weeks.

I never got to ask if she had ever heard Maria Callas, a personal idol of mine, and the singer most responsible for my love of opera, in performance. But in that same Met Opera broadcast interview, while reminiscing about some of her favorite sopranos, she said she regretted hearing Callas only on records. But she recounted the story of sharing an elevator with the diva while leaving the hotel she was staying in on her way to argue one of her cases before the Supreme Court. “In the elevator already is Maria Callas, looking every inch a diva, with a white mink coat and little white puppy in her arm. And I knew that I would win that argument. And I did!”

“In the fullness of their lives”

In June of 2015, my partner Antonio (Tony) Pedrero and I had the great honor of being married by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Supreme Court building. For various family-health and personal reasons, the wedding date was rather hastily arranged, and though we had originally considered having both the ceremony and reception at our home in Falls Church, Virginia, the Justice’s assistant informed us that RBG had the power to perform the ceremony only in Washington, DC, (or in Connecticut, New York, or Vermont, by virtue of her overseeing the 2nd Circuit).

During the short lead-up to the happy day, the Justice sent me her remarks from several previous weddings she had performed, so we could choose something on which she would base what she said at our ceremony. I honestly cannot recall which “precedent” we chose—and there were some starry pairs among them—but I do recall that she tailored her brief, succinct remarks to our unique situation. The line of hers we most often quote referred to our coming together “in the fullness of their lives.” 

It was a day we shall treasure for the rest of our lives. The short ceremony began as Tony and I marched in to the March from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, appropriately) and included a beautiful rendition of a choral setting by Jay Althouse of the Shaker hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” sung by a group of dear friends. In retrospect, many of us imagined a special note in the Justice’s voice and a twinkle in her eye as she said, “By the power vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, I pronounce them married!” Same-sex weddings were already legal in the District of Columbia and many other jurisdictions, but just two weeks later the Court handed down its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, making it the law of the land. 

The event was not without its humorous moments. At its conclusion a receiving line very quickly formed. But Tony and I did not see most of the guests then, nor did we see the Justice after the ceremony; instead, everyone lined up to pay their respects to the Notorious RBG. We had been told she had to leave promptly at 4:30pm for another commitment, and just as my nephew James Hagedorn reached the front of the line to greet her, a Supreme Court Police Officer whispered to her that it was time to go, and she politely held up her hand and walked away quickly. We love to tease James that he had the honor of being “Ginsburned” at the Supreme Court!

Later that year she graciously agreed to preside over my retirement ceremony at the Court, as I completed my Federal Civil Service career. Her remarks were engaging as well as both warm and humorous. (My own remarks fell prey to my over-editing/word-smithing; while copying and pasting from an older version, I apparently left my husband’s name off the list of persons to thank for coming to the event.)

In February 2009 the Justice had her first bout of pancreatic cancer. Since the WNO chorus was then rehearsing Britten’s Peter Grimes, I brought a get-well card for the Justice to the rehearsal studio that anyone could sign. There was not an inch of space left on the card. Shortly after, the Justice wrote a note to “all my Opera fans:”

To my dear friends and encouragers:

Even during the hardest patches, the prayers and good wishes you offered sheltered me like a host of angels. I would so much like to write each of you, individually, expressing my enormous appreciation. But the flood of love and caring makes that endeavor beyond my capacity, especially in view of the Court work to be done in preparation for our next session.

A thousand thanks,

R.B.G. 

A few months later a dear friend in the WNO chorus, Patricia Boyd, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The Justice didn’t hesitate to send a signed photograph and note of encouragement to someone going through the struggle she had just endured. Pat lost her struggle shortly after, but she had related to me how moved she had been by the Justice’s gesture.

Now that Justice Ginsburg has left us, we are all left to consider with gratitude just how much she has contributed to the fullness of all our lives.

2 Comments “Sandra tells me you’re an opera singer!”

  1. Carol Boulanger

    Yours is a wonderful collection of precious memories, offering us a fascinating and affectionate glimpse of RBG that is refreshingly off-the-beaten-track. These posts should be collected and published as an article in some suitable music journal. You were so well placed to have witnessed (and documented) the day-to-day expression of RBG’s love of music and opera – as well as her great humanity.

    Reply

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