Ruth Bader Ginsburg always wanted to be a singer.
“If I had any talent in the world, any talent that God could give me, I would be a great diva,” she told a group of law students at Georgetown University in 2015.
Her singing career didn’t pan out, but the Supreme Court justice and feminist icon remained an avid opera fan until her death in September.
On March 15, in honor of what would have been Ginsburg’s 88th birthday, the National Museum of American Jewish History, Opera Philadelphia and the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience at The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music will host “For the Love of Opera: Celebrating RBG’s 88th Birthday.” The event will feature recorded performances of Ginsburg’s favorite arias as well as commentary from opera professionals who knew her.
Ginsburg was a longtime member of NMAJH. In 2019, she became the 21st inductee into the museum’s Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame. Given her connection to the museum and the Jewish community, the staff knew they wanted to organize an event recognizing the first birthday after her death.
Dan Samuels, public programs manager at NMAJH, began researching her passion for opera. He encountered stories from artists who met her and noticed the common themes in her favorite performances.
“There are several articles written about love for opera, but especially operas whose plotlines run parallel to what she was fighting for in her life,” he said.
The museum partnered with Opera Philadelphia and the Lowell Milken Center to select music and organize the program.
Grant Loehnig, head of music staff at Opera Philadelphia, helped make the selections and also provided piano accompaniment for the recorded performances. He said the organizers knew one of Ginsburg’s favorite operas was Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” and they included an aria featuring Despina, the strong female character in his “Cosî Fan Tutte.”
“We want it to be a celebration of her and her love of opera, and we hope that comes through with the joy of the performances,” he said.
Peter Kazaras, director of opera at UCLA, helped select the music and will host the event.
“Each of the selections has something to do with either a theme in law or in social justice, and whether that’s a contested will from ‘Gianni Schicci,’ or whether that’s buying someone out of a contract in ‘The Elixir of Love,’ or whether that be issue of punitive immigration laws in the aria from ‘The Consul,’ those are the issues we’re dealing with here,” he said.
Kazaras met Ginsburg at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where he has directed four operas. He said she would come to the parties after the shows and speak with delighted performers about how much she enjoyed their work.
“For those of us who were in the business and, you know, got to meet her, I have to say it was astonishing the details she remembered,” he said. “She remembered who had done what where, not only who had sung, but who had directed, who had conducted — all of that stuff was pretty much at her fingertips.”
The program features performances by tenor Joshua Blue, baritone Norman Garrett, soprano Michelle Rice and soprano Ashley Marie Robillard with piano accompaniment by Loehnig and Stephen Karr. The songs were recorded in NMAJH’s Dell Theater and UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall.
Commentary about Ginsburg’s relationship with opera will be offered by Francesca Zambello, the Washington National Opera’s stage director and artistic director, and Lawrence Brownlee, tenor and artistic adviser to Opera Philadelphia. Brownlee shared the stage with Ginsburg in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment” at WNO in 2016. She played the speaking role of “The Duchess,” who gives lovers permission to marry.
“For the Love of Opera” will air via Facebook Live on the Facebook pages of NMAJH, Opera Philadelphia and the Lowell Milken Center at 8 p.m. EST. The production will also be available on-demand after the event on Facebook, NMAJH’s website and the Opera Philadelphia Channel.
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