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Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Her Love of Opera

This episode looks back at the former Supreme Court Justice and her passion for the arts

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Getty Images/AARP

Bob Edwards:

 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court, passed away last Friday at 87 years old. Her death sent emotional and political shockwaves through the nation.

 

She is credited as an architect for a more equitable, inclusive society—especially for women. Not only was she the oldest member of the current U.S. Supreme Court, she defined what it means to live with purpose at every age. She ignored calls to retire for more than 20 years and, on her own terms, continued to contribute to the court and to the American people.

 

Ginsburg lies in repose at the Supreme Court building, and on Friday, she’ll become the first woman to lie in state in the Capitol.

 

Many are aware of Ginsburg’s numerous achievements and love of the law, but today, we hear, in her own voice, about her other passion.

That’s coming up next.

Bob Edwards:

Hi I’m Bob Edwards with an AARP Take on Today.

Bob Edwards:

In December 2015, AARP The Magazine published an interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg that provided a new perspective on the Supreme Court justice.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Most of the time, even when I go to sleep, I'm thinking about these legal problems. But when I go to the opera, I'm just lost in it. I’m loving it. And I don't think about any brief.

Bob Edwards:

We caught up with reporter Fred Allen, who shared his personal audio files of Justice Ginsburg in a 2015 interview.

Bob Edwards:

So how did you feel when you were told you'd interview Justice Ginsburg about her love of opera?

 

Fred Allen:

I suppose I was a little bit nervous going in, but I knew that I would be talking to her about something that was not just a sympathetic subject for her, but something that was a lifelong love that she terrifically enjoyed talking about.

 

Fred Allen:

Above all she seemed to love the way the opera brings together so many elements of the arts. That there is a great dramatic story, there is great music, there is great singing, there is great scenery and visual presentation, and she just thought the way that all came together, but she especially spoke of the operatic voice and said the operatic voice is like no other. She just loved great singers and how they sounded in great operas.

 

Bob Edwards:

A lot of the stories are about contracts and people's obligations under contracts and their dilemma about filling those obligations.

 

Fred Allen:

That's true, and she used to give talks about that at the Glimmerglass Opera. When I was talking to her, she especially raised the case of the opera Billy Budd

 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

One of the reasons it was so good, is that now though [inaudible] each passing year on his father in law [inaudible] who was an abolitionist. But had to enforce the fugitive slave laws and so the conflict between his office that required him to surrender the slaves to their masters, and what he knows is morally right.

 

Bob Edwards:

Wow, you don't get any deeper into American law history than that.

 

Fred Allen:

No. It was amazing hearing her talk about her passion for opera combined with her deep and vast knowledge. She was a very soft-spoken, mild sounding person, but it was the soft-spokenness and mildness of somebody of terrific strengths. Even talking about the opera you got the sense this is somebody who knows it all and gets it all and feels deeply about it all, and maybe becomes of that almost would never have any reason to raise her voice.

 

Bob Edwards:

In 2015, an opera opened about her and Justice Antonin Scalia called Scalia/Ginsburg. Enrolled in law school, composer Derrick Wang was reading dueling opinions by Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia, and decided he could compose a comic opera from them.

Bob Edwards:

Tell me what she said about the opera written about her and about Justice Scalia?

Fred Allen:

She said it was a wonderful thing. It hadn't opened yet. This was just a couple of months before it was opening, and she loved the idea of it. Loved the idea of basing the story on her and another character who were these towering jurists who, on the one hand are great friends, but on the other hand have terrific disagreements in the law. She said that it quoted a lot from their writings and their opinions, and she said it actually had more footnotes than a typical legal brief.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Derrick had the graduate degree from Harvard and masters in music from Yale. But he decided it would be good to learn about the law. He's from Baltimore and enrolled in the University of Maryland Law school. And in his constitution war cries he lists his opinions, [inaudible] this way or that way, he said he thought he could make a good comic opera out of that.

But it’s really touching because it shows two people who, in separate pasts [inaudible] in a separate manner that really like each other, and that the master weapon we have is called we are different, we are one. Different in the way we interpret the constitution, one in reverence for the institution.

Bob Edwards:

What was her favorite opera?

Fred Allen:

Well she said, "One day I'll say my favorite opera is the Marriage of Figaro. Another day I'll say my favorite opera is Don Giovanni." She put in those two operas above all others by anybody. Although she also mentioned Così fan tutte, the third opera that Mozart wrote with his great librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. I asked her, "How would you introduce people who have never listened to opera before, how would you introduce them to it?" And she said with her own daughter what she did was at dinner.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

What I did for my children, I picked an opera that I thought was [inaudible] and we played this recording while we were having dinner And then when she had heard them, maybe four or five times I sat down with her listened to Gretel….anyway, that went very well. By the time she got to the opera she knew most of the lyrics.

Fred:

I said, "Wow. What a fascinating, wonderful thing to do. And how old was your daughter when you did this?" She said, "She was eight."

Fred Allen:

Yeah. Yeah, and I said, "Così fan tutte is sort of a funny story for an eight year old. It's all about marital betrayal." But she said, "Oh, but it's a wonderful story and it's hilarious, and it has the wonderful character Despina who my daughter just loved." And I said, "Yes, and who gets very involved impersonating a lawyer and dealing with a contract at one point in the opera." She laughed and said, "Yes, that's true too."

Bob Edwards:

Anything else you'd like to share about your interview with her?

Fred Allen:

She had discovered opera when she was 11 years old, and there was a performance at her school. An amazing conductor who put together groups of students to perform for other groups of students, and he was a terrific under appreciated African American conductor named Dean Dixon. He came to her school with a one hour production of La Gioconda, and that was it for her. She was from then on in love with opera. Meanwhile, she told the story of how he said....

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

He left the United States, this is still the forties. He was very well educated in Julliard. And He said in all the time that he’s been conducting, no one ever called him maestro.

Fred Allen:

Really?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

When he left the United States He had a flourishing career in Europe and he came back 20 years later. Every officer wanted him as a guest conductor. A lot had changed in the United States in those years, from ‘44 to ‘64.

Bob Edwards:

What was it like to have this insight into Justice Ginsburg?

Fred Allen:

It was very touching. I was a great admirer of hers and had loved her legal work, but to get to talk to her personally and about something that she cared so much about and that I love very much too, and sort of feel a shared passion with this remarkable person was a real unique opportunity. I felt very lucky.

Bob Edwards:

 

Thanks to Fred Allen for sharing his very special audio files and his memories with us. If you want to read his interview, you can find it at AARP dot org. We'll leave it in a link in the show notes.

 

In honor of Justice Ginsburg, I’ll leave you with one of her favorite operatic pieces from Don Giovanni.

 

For an AARP Take on Today, I'm Bob Edwards. Thanks for listening, and stay safe.

 

Fred Allen:

Do you have particular favorite operas?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

One day I will say American Figaro, and another day I will say Don Giovanni. I think those are the two most perfect operas in the world.

And Don Giovanni also has the most seductive song in all of opera, la Ci Darem la Mano. It’s so beautiful when they’re done introducing Zerlina.

Many are aware of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s numerous achievements and love of the law, but some may not know that she had another passion. On this week's episode, we hear, in her own voice, about her love of opera.

For more information:

Fred Allen's interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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