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Ginsburg loved opera, and opera loved her back
In this file photo taken on August 09, 1993 Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William Rehnquist (R) administers the oath of office to newly-appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (L) as U.S. President Bill Clinton looks on. Progressive icon and doyenne of the US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has died at the age of 87 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, the court announced on September 18, 2020. Ginsburg, affectionately known as the Notorious RBG, passed away "this evening surrounded by her family at her home in Washington, DC," the court said in a statement. KORT DUCE / AFP.

by Francesca Zambello

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death was announced Friday evening, tributes began flowing from an unlikely source: opera singers, who posted backstage portraits taken alongside Ginsburg and testimonials to her intense love of their art form.

Many prominent people attend the opera occasionally, but Ginsburg was almost an obsessive. She saw her first opera — a condensed version of “La Gioconda” — in 1944, when she was 11, and was immediately hooked, becoming the kind of aficionado who goes to dress rehearsals, and then opening nights, and then closing nights, too, for good measure.

“Most of the time, even when I go to sleep, I’m thinking about legal problems,” she said in 2015. “But when I go to the opera, I’m just lost in it.”

It was a love she shared with Antonin Scalia, her Supreme Court colleague, friend and ideological antagonist; in 2015, an opera, “Scalia/Ginsburg,” was even written about their relationship. They shared the stage on occasion as (silent) supernumeraries, though in 2016 Ginsburg also had a turn in the speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp in Gaetano Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment” at Washington National Opera.

Francesca Zambello, director of that company and the Glimmerglass Festival, in upstate New York, spoke to our classical music editor, Zachary Woolfe, about Ginsburg and her passion for opera. The interview has been edited and condensed.

She was our greatest advocate and our greatest spokesperson. She carried this art form. We always dream about the ideal attendee or subscriber, who knows everything but is open to interpretations.

And for me, she was a friend for almost 20 years. We became close in 2003, when I directed a production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in Washington. The theater was closed, and we did it in Constitution Hall, which is famous because its owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution, wouldn’t let Marian Anderson sing there because she was Black.

And R.B.G. wrote me a letter that it was the best “Fidelio” she’d ever seen. She said I got close to what Beethoven wanted in this story of Leonore, who disguises herself as a man to rescue her husband from prison. She related to it as a woman and a feminist. “You told the story of what women do,” she said.

She loved Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” and its finale, the Immolation Scene. We had a lot of conversations about Brünnhilde and why it took a woman to save the world. That’s what she said: Only a woman could do it; only a woman could change the course of history. She did always love pieces where the woman was the protagonist.

Her life was about understanding people’s stories, and that’s what we do. When you look at her great decisions — like the father who was trying to get child care support because he was a widower, and at that point you could only get the support if you were a widow — those kinds of cases she made her career of are the stuff of opera. The underdog, the ill-served character: Manon Lescaut, Violetta, women who have to struggle their way to the top for survival. They connected to her sense of right and wrong and what is a humane way of living.

After “Fidelio” we stayed really close. In D.C., I even put her in a speaking role in “The Daughter of the Regiment.” I would say she was someone who loved the “ABC” — “Aida,” “Bohème” and “Carmen” — but also more sophisticated and complex works. She came to every performance of Wagner’s “Ring” we did in Washington. And she would often come to both the dress rehearsal and the first performance of things, and then also the last performance.

When her husband, Marty, passed, she would come more often. She would always bring someone with her, sometimes another justice. By the last few years, she would appear and come down the aisle, and everyone would start cheering. I think that opera just gave her an incredible escape. Particularly after Marty died, it allowed her mind to go places it needed to go to rest from the incredible work that she was doing for all of us. If the tireless pursuit of justice is your day job, it helps to spend time at the Café Momus in “La Bohème” at night.

She came to Glimmerglass for nine summers and did a program called “Law and Opera with R.B.G.” We’d had so many conversations about how, in many operas, there’s a contract. What opera doesn’t have a contract, or wrongdoing? And so we would do scenes from operas, and she would talk about the legal side. We’d do the Seguidilla from “Carmen,” and she’d explain that that was plea bargaining.

We did “Scalia/Ginsburg” at Glimmerglass, about their friendship, and before Scalia died, there were many great performances, when we would have opening nights in Washington, and Scalia would sit on one side of the aisle, and she sat in the other. They would be friendly and jocular and lovey-dovey at the opera, and you knew the next day they would be giving opposing opinions.

She had endless patience for giving to artists. She was very close to Larry Brownlee, Eric Owens. She really wanted to talk to performers, and talk about the roles, and the music and the characters. Alan Held was our Wotan in the “Ring” in D.C., and she loved conversations about the contracts Wotan makes. I think she had a passion for American artists. Our American Opera Initiative, which brought new works to D.C., she was at all of them, good and bad.

She would quote a line back to you from a libretto — in the original language! I wouldn’t say she was conventional, but she did not like things when they veered too far out of period. She’d say something like, “I don’t know if they’re going to like that in Washington.” But it was always supportive, constructive criticism.

I remember after Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” at Glimmerglass being next to her and her just being visibly shaken and weeping from one of Eric Owens’ greatest performances. She was very emotional — I don’t think she would hide it if she were moved by something; you would know it. If I didn’t see her after the performance, I’d always get an email the next morning. She would always send a note about what she loved, who she loved, and “I guess you need to fix that.” Like at the dress rehearsal of “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” the guillotine was terrible. So she’d say something like, “I’m sure that will be working by opening.” But always done with a spirit of kindness.

The irony is, we had to cancel our fall season, but we were going to open with a new production of “Fidelio.” I told her I was doing it for her, as a gift.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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