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Chief Justice Ruth Ginsburg Goes to the Opera

Chief Justice Ruth Ginsburg Goes to the Opera

One thing that always surprises me is just how accessible the Supreme Court justices can be. Despite their immense power, if you pay attention, they willfully participate in any number of public forums, dispensing their views not only on the consequential matters they deal in daily, but also in more quotidian things. Take Ruth Ginsburg for example, who this week participated on The New Yorker’s cultural blog. The magazine’s classical music critic, the wonderful Alex Ross, recently began asking cultural bigwigs—Mark Morris, Alec Baldwin, Bjork—what their favorite classical recordings were. But this week he jumped into politics, and queried Ginsburg.

She’s a huge opera fan, which isn’t exactly news. Her opera fandom has been a frequent bit of gossip in the beltway for years, and two of her children are in the classical music world—her daughter’s a soprano, and her son runs the indie classical label Cedille Records. Ginsburg herself has been a fan at least since the early Sixties, when, fresh out of Columbia Law School, she saw Leontyne Price, the first black soprano to perform regularly with the Met, give her company debut.

But Ginsburg, now 79 and the oldest justice on the bench, continues to attend operas regularly, often with her intellectual adversary—the conservative judge Antonin Scalia—in her company. Here’s a little bit of gossip that shows just how intimate that opera-bond between the two is: when Ginsburg and Scalia, a few years ago, were asked to host a luncheon for an award ceremony hosted by the National Endowment, they both were giddy at the chance to meet Leontyne Price, then 82, who had been an award recipient. The discussion turned to a controversial, very chic and modern, new production of Puccini’s “Boheme,” staged at the Washington National Opera that year. Ginsburg expressed disdain, then Scalia then chimed in: “''Ruth is a harsh opera critic,'' he told The Times. ''I'm supposed to be the stodgy one, but I loved it.''

But back to the blog: so what exactly were Ginsburg’s favorite operas? She cited many of the classics—Verdi’s “Aida” and “Otello,” Puccini’s “Tosca,” Tchaickovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” and of course Mozart (“Don Gionvanni” and “The Marriage of Figaro”). All unimpeachable choices. But there were several conspicuous absences. Nothing, I was shocked, by the bel canto triumvirate—Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti—for instance. (Aside from Mozart, they’re personal favorites, so yes I’m biased.)

And then there was no Wagner—a surprise, at least since the Met’s recently completed Ring cycle has thrust him back in the center of attention, for opera fans the world over. But of course that shock is tempered by the ugly fact of Wagner’s rabid anti-semitism, an issue that still precludes him from being performed in Israel, and which is especially poignant for Jews with closer proximity to the Holocaust. Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, in East Midwood, not Europe. But being born in 1933 would have made her old enough to have vivid memories of that time. Moreover, her intellectual precociousness has been widely written about, as well as her early connection to Judaism. As a regular at a Jewish summer camp in upstate New York, she often acted as the “camp rabbi.”

I would have loved to know her thoughts on Wagner, and whether the Holocaust has had any influence on her tastes regarding him. But we’ll have to suffice with the few notes she gave Ross to accompany her list. Ever the underdog’s advocate, she gave this telling tidbit: “Listened to LP recording many times,” she wrote of Handel's “Julius Caesar,” recorded by the New York City Opera under conductor Julius Rudel. “Production was Julius Rudel’s triumph, opened in the State Theatre the year the Met moved to Lincoln Center.” And she couldn’t help but play up that contrast, between the people’s City Opera and its deep-pocketed rival, the Met. As she said of the Met’s debut that year: “opened with the not at all triumphant production of Barber’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’”

Heil, Caesar.

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