Scalia/Ginsburg, a tuneful, well-constructed, and most importantly funny operetta by Derrick Wang that premiered at the Castleton Festival in Virginia on July 11, bids fair to find a lasting place in the American opera and operetta repertoire—and suggests that those of us who fear for the demise of this art might be a bit hasty. Wang, a musician, poet, and lawyer, served as his own librettist; only 31, he bears watching.
Comic opera and the courts have a long history together. Some of Gilbert and Sullivan’s funniest and best-written moments skewered the legal system, particularly in Trial by Jury and Iolanthe; ninety-eight years after the latter was written, William Rehnquist, a passionate G&S fan and then an associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, read it into the U.S. legal canon by opening his dissent Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia by quoting the Lord Chancellor’s entrance aria:
The Law is the true embodiment
Of everything that’s excellent,
It has no kind of fault or flaw
And I, my Lords, embody the Law.
“It is difficult not to derive more than a little of this flavor from the various opinions supporting the judgment in this case,” Rehnquist added scathingly. Later, when Chief Justice, Rehnquist would add three gold stripes to each sleeve of his robes after being captivated by the look of the Lord Chancellor’s costume in a community theater production. And both Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg are opera buffs, as well as (many are surprised to learn) close friends out of chambers.
So Wang’s concept did not come out of the blue, but rather is the newest entry in a long, distinguished dialogue. Our story in brief: Scalia (sung by tenor John Overholt), working late in the court one night, has had enough of his fellow judges’ loose attitude toward the Constitution. But just as he’s working up yet another impassioned dissent, one of the court’s statues bursts into life, proclaiming that it is a “celestial bureaucrat” (bass-baritone Adam Cioffari) sent to weigh Justice Scalia’s worth against the annoyance of his incessant dissenting. The chamber is sealed and the trial is about to start when Justice Ginsburg (Ellen Wieser, in a powerful yet lucid soprano) drops in, literally—not the first time in her life, as she points out, that she’s broken through a ceiling. Her stubborn refusal to leave prompts the otherworldly judge to try them both, first by making them defend their legal philosophies, and then (the harder challenge by far?) by forcing them to remain silent as he attacks them. Both hold their peace, though twitchily, as they are assailed with the usual charges—you only did what was convenient, you’re making it up as you go along, you hypocrites! Eventually the judge starts simply chanting “Bush v. Gore, Bush v. Gore, Bush v. Gore…” and Scalia bursts from his seat singing, “Oh, get over it!” (This brought down the house, though I doubt it would have ten years ago.) The Judge condemns him to a place where “words have no meaning.” (Wang updated his libretto as recently as June to reflect the new Obamacare and gay marriage rulings). Scalia refuses to repent, but Ginsburg proclaims that she too must be sent there if Nino is to go: as they’re both members of the court, they can speak with one voice. (So that’s what it takes to get Ginsburg to join a Scalia dissent—actual hellfire.) They join in a duet, “We are different. We are one”, reflecting on how their seemingly opposing strands of thought actually keep the Court going and uphold the American way. Impressed, the judge rewards them for their friendship with actual operatic talent, something that both justices have lamented, in real life and in the script, that they lack.
I remarked to a friend of mine upon entering that Scalia/Ginsburg was likely to stand or fall on two considerations: whether the music was enjoyable, and whether it could give enough weight and balance to Justice Scalia’s point of view to be funny rather than a political screed. (It goes without saying I was not apprehensive that the arts crowd, and Justice Ginsburg herself, would turn out for a musical version of Scalia’s King dissent.) I must confess, from experience with both the output and the politics of the modern music scene, I did not have my hopes set too high.
How delightfully wrong I was. The music proved accessible and fun; more surprisingly, despite the overall soft-left leanings of the production, Scalia’s position was given a full-throated voicing, and was depicted in ways that were as American as they were authentically conservative.
Most importantly of all, Scalia/Ginsburg works as opera. When Scalia came in, his opening aria was Handel-like, but with passages interspersed of “The Star Spangled Banner” and Christmas music—which is to say, conservative, ordered, and with a regard for patriotism and traditional religion: the perfect (as well as pleasant and accessible) musical evocation of Justice Scalia. When Ginsburg entered, she opened with a more freely-structured aria, with lots of ascending scales, that quoted Ella Fitzgerald and swing music: It was race- and class-conscious, self-consciously feminist, aspirational, and attuned to changing times. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with that characterization of her politics or not—that’s how Ginsburg sees herself, so that’s how the music portrays her. And that’s good opera.
The composer/librettist made extensive use of quotations, both musical and judicial, in ways that won’t impede audience members not steeped in either field, but which deliciously reward those who are. When the celestial judge challenges Scalia, he replies, “My friends call me Nino” to the tune of Si, mi chiamano Mimi—timid, doomed, little Mimi’s aria from La Boheme. Then, when the Judge asks, “And I?”, he replies in a harsh tone, “… Call me Justice Scalia.” Asked when feminists will finally be happy, Ginsburg replies, “When we are paid, are paid our worth” to the strains of Dido’s lament, “When I am laid in earth,” from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. And then there are the legal references: fans of Scalia’s dissents will know where he’s coming from when he describes the celestial bureaucrat’s opinions, mid-aria, as “pure applesauce” and, as for the judge himself, “this wolf comes as a wolf.” At one point, Scalia is offered some refreshments, but refuses a Frankfurter and a Burger because they are not to his taste. This is just a sample: the annotated libretto has hundreds of musical and legal footnotes, and was published in the Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts with a preface by Scalia and Ginsburg themselves. (The production also enjoyed previews at the Supreme Court, the Second Circuit Judicial Conference and Stanford Law School before its premiere at Castleton.)
This isn’t to say there’s no original music—there is, a lot of it—just that Scalia/Ginsburg contains some great Easter eggs. When I spoke to Wang after the performance, he pointed out that both law and musical composition are (or should rightly be) built on precedent, a commonality he wanted his opera to reflect. Smart, humble composer; smart, humble opera. In not trying to render Mozart obsolete in a single stroke, Wang actually goes well past what many of his more lauded contemporaries have been able to do.
The opera strikes only a couple of false notes. The most obvious—but the most easily remedied—is that the last piece is a digression into the life Justice Ginsburg shares with her husband and her penchant for cooking. It’s a series of food/music puns that comes out of nowhere and feels tacked-on. The natural conclusion to the work comes right before: a “transformation” scene reminiscent of the end of Gilbert and Sullivan’s first surviving operetta, Trial by Jury, in which the other statues in the Supreme Court (who serve as a mute chorus throughout) become the Justices’ backup dancers as the plot resolves on a note of patriotism and comity. While the “Frozen lime souffle” ditty is clever, it comes across as self-indulgent (it actually begins “Wait! One last thing”), and upsets the overall symmetry of the opera. The upbeat chorus that concludes Don Giovanni is sometimes omitted; the same may happen to Scalia/Ginsburg’s finale in the future, with good effect.
The other problem, by contrast, is what we don’t hear: Despite the overall enjoyability and sophistication of the music, there’s no single tune that the audience could have walked out whistling. Admittedly, it’s been almost a century since opera did that sort of thing; I can’t remember a tune from L’Heure Espagnole, either, which formed the first half of the night’s bill—and that’s by Ravel! But until we do get back to that—until audiences again leave operas humming, the way my great-grandmother left Turandot (and my mother left Star Wars, more to the point)—opera is unlikely to become a popular art form again. One of Wang’s pieces came close—Scalia’s aria, “He built stairs”, in which he compares the conservative ideal of law by ordered rule to his father’s trade (both allow “freedom with a frame… to aim/for something ever higher”). Something was just a little off, though, that prevented it from being a true earworm—I’m afraid I can’t say quite what, or I’d be on the other side of the composer’s pen. But the music world could use more near-misses like that one, and I look forward to Wang’s next attempts.
Nevertheless, the fact that my chief complaint is that Wang did not surpass Ravel should demonstrate what class of opera this was. The production, too, was very strong. Directed by Maria Tucci and conducted by Salvatore Percacciolo, the cast was demonstrative without descending into self-parody (important, when you need to keep people entertained during what’s essentially an hour-long court proceeding). Likewise, the set (by Julia Noulin-Merat) and costumes (Lara de Bruijn) were realistic without attempting to be an exact replica of the Supreme Court’s chambers. Unfortunately, Overholt, though convincing as Antonin Scalia, was either hoarse the night that I heard him (July 17) or his voice could not fill the dead space of a festival tent (the fabric of which does a singer no favors). On the other hand, Wieser, who’s on her way to establishing a strong place on the touring circuit, simply soared.
It’s often fashionable to rate works more highly if they feature a fashionable cynicism. Scalia/Ginsburg, while not shying away from zingers, ultimately does not—which is good. There’s a time and a place for comedy as criticism; I would suggest the England in which Iolanthe appeared was one such. But considering the extent to which feelings are riled and battle lines divided over the Supreme Court right now, it’s helpful to remember that it’s an enduringly, endearingly American institution, our common property. Wang, in presenting a happy ending, fulfilled the Greek idea of comedy as a restorer of social cohesion. Even better, he manages to do this and yet still evoke real belly laughs from the audience. People could use a few—about the Court and much else.