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The Story Behind Buddy Opera Scalia/Ginsburg


"Like a Scalia dissent, a Baroque rage aria is passionate, it is virtuosic, and it is rooted in traditions of the 18th century," says lawyer Derrick Wang, creator of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg: A (Gentle) Parody of Operatic Proportions. That comparison was the spark that inspired him to create an opera about the famous friendship between Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "I learned to let the subject tell me the story that it wanted heard," Derrick explained this week at TedX Broadway.

What makes up a constitutional law-themed opera? Derrick says he wanted to "portray with music and words what it's like to grapple with the hard questions of law." He created something he calls "operatic precedent," meaning that he sourced everything the Scalia and Ginsburg characters say to something the justices have actually said. (He jokes, "This is another way to say I spent a lot of time doing footnotes.")


When he first agreed to give this talk, he "could not have foreseen how much the Supreme Court would be on our minds this past week," said Derrick, who attended Scalia's funeral service on Saturday. He's been thinking about the Supreme Court nonstop for the past few years: He previewed the opera in the Supreme Court's East Conference Room for the two justices in June 2013 with just two singers. (We profiled Derrick afterward.) In February '14, it had its first full staging, and last year, its world premiere at the Castleton Festival backed by a 50-piece orchestra.

The same way court opinions rely on precedent, the music in Scalia/Ginsburg refers at key moments to famous passages in opera to generate new material. Though opera can be high drama, Derrick came up with the tone after reflecting on Scalia and Ginsburg's friendship and work together. "Maybe this isn't high drama, maybe this is a buddy comedy."


Justice Ginsburg, in her tribute to the late Justice Scalia, used the opera to illustrate their closeness: "Toward the end of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet: "We are different, we are one," different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve. From our years together at the DC Circuit, we were best buddies."

It's not the first time Ginsburg has referenced the opera: at a 2013 event, she said the opera encapsulates her personal and professional relationship with Justice Scalia in song; she also recited Scalia's opening "rage aria" by heart.

She and Scalia both wrote prefaces for the libretto, in which Ginsburg calls the opera "a dream come true." In his preface, Justice Scalia said, "While Justice Ginsburg is confident that she has achieved her highest and best use as a Supreme Justice, I, alas, have the nagging doubt that I could have been a contendah—for a divus, or whatever a male diva is called." He added, "I suppose, however, that it would be too much to expect the author of Scalia/Ginsburg to allow me to play (sing) myself—especially if Ruth refuses to play (sing) herself. Even so, it may be a good show."