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Philadelphia’s opera community pours its love for Ruth Bader Ginsburg

“You saw something in her eyes that told you she was having the time of her life," said Opera Philadelphia artistic advisor Lawrence Brownlee, who appeared with Ginsburg in a D.C. production.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee with Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Duchess of Krakenthorp — a speaking role — in Washington National Opera's 2016 production of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment.
Tenor Lawrence Brownlee with Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Duchess of Krakenthorp — a speaking role — in Washington National Opera's 2016 production of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment.Read moreWashington National Opera/Scott Suchman

She was dubbed the Notorious RBG, a nickname that referenced a rapper. But it was another musical genre that was central to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life. The late Supreme Court justice adored opera, and to feed her habit, she often turned to Philadelphians or artists closely associated with the city.

“She had a passionate love for music — it cannot be distinguished from who she was as a person,” said tenor and Opera Philadelphia artistic advisor Lawrence Brownlee, who performed for — and even with — the jurist.

Ginsburg, who died Friday at age 87, was a lifelong devotee of classical music, and once played piano and cello. Opera, though, had a special allure.

» READ MORE: Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The book, the movie — and tonight in Philly an RBG songfest

In fact, at a dinner before a 2017 Kennedy Center Philadelphia Orchestra concert attended by Ginsburg, orchestra executive director Ryan Fleur found himself on the receiving end of a little musical dissent.

“You know, I really prefer opera to symphony,” Fleur recalls her saying. “Do you perform any opera?”

When he said that a production of Tosca was planned for the following season, she shot back: Who’s your Scarpia?

“I love that when knowing we were preparing Tosca, she went right to Scarpia and not Tosca,” said Fleur. “It showed her sophisticated knowledge of the art. She loved a great baritone. She kept coming back to Scarpia.”

The orchestra world did not escape her scrutiny. She once noted that when screens between audition committees and auditioning musicians went up, so did the number of women playing in orchestras.

Ginsburg could not imagine life without music, said Jeffrey Rosen. The president and CEO of the National Constitution Center recalls her saying that she might otherwise be consumed with an opinion or argument coming up in court, but at the opera she was totally immersed in another world.

“She was an extremely close listener to music,” said Rosen, author of Conversations With RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty, and Law. “She allowed herself to feel the emotions so intensely she essentially merged with the music.”

» READ MORE: Ruth Bader Ginsburg will receive this year’s Liberty Medal

Rosen first encountered Ginsburg in an elevator 30 years ago, and, searching for an opening line — and not being a follower of sports — he asked whether she had seen any good operas lately.

She had, lately and for nearly her entire life, at the Metropolitan Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass Festival, and elsewhere. In 2016, she ventured out onto the stage in the speaking role of Duchess of Krakenthorp in Washington National Opera’s production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment."

“She was not at all nervous, but giddy,” said Brownlee, who was singing Tonio in the opera. “You saw something in her eyes that told you she was having the time of her life.”

“Isn’t it something? Here we have this sincere person who was very soft-spoken and not very revealing, this powerhouse of a woman who comes in this teeny-tiny package. And yet she loved theatrics and all that surrounded the theater,” said mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who often performed for Ginsburg and was close friends with her.

What was the pull?

“Theater was an escape," said Graves, who performed on the program when Ginsburg was awarded the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal earlier this month. "With all of the things she had to be concerned with, she could forget for a while and could enter this world that was beautiful.”

Among Ginsburg’s favorites were Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, she told The New Yorker as part of a 2012 list of best-loved recordings, as well as works like Verdi’s Aida and Otello, Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, Britten’s Billy Budd, and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

» READ MORE: Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the impossible look easy | Opinion

Opera was a persistent soundtrack in her life. Significantly, the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal ceremony featured performances by Brownlee, bass Soloman Howard, and soprano Renée Fleming along with Graves.

A decade ago, music also had a presence at a memorial service for Ginsburg’s husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, when Graves and Philadelphia pianist Laura Ward performed Grace, a song by Michael Tilson Thomas.

“I’ll never forget her face when Denyce was four feet in front of her singing this song,” said Ward. “She had this sweetest expression of gratitude.”

Graves and Ward will be tapped again. They are preparing to perform as part of a Friday memorial for Ginsburg in the U.S. Capitol.

If the anguish and energy behind social media posts by musicians everywhere in the past few days are any indication, it’s not a blue wave Republicans should be worried about, but a musical one. Wrote violinist Joshua Bell: “It seems appropriate to me that Justice Ginsburg’s first name rhymes with ‘truth.’ Her profound allegiance to truth was evident in everything she did, from her work on the bench to her deep love of classical music, which she must have recognized as one of humanity’s most successful attempts at finding it.”

What many classical musicians sensed at the Supreme Court was nothing less than a spiritual home. For much of Ginsburg’s time on the court, her operatic partner in crime was Justice Antonin Scalia. They attended the opera together, and appeared on stage as supernumeraries (extras) in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos.

» READ MORE: Ruth Bader Ginsburg lauded in Philly as a legal and feminist icon ‘whose voice soared above the rest’

The relationship also inspired an opera. Scalia/Ginsburg, by Derrick Wang, was first heard at the Supreme Court. Opera Delaware performed it in 2019, and it will receive a radio broadcast carried locally by WRTI-FM (90.1) on Nov. 7.

“They bonded on the D.C. circuit court over music, and he just made her crack up,” said Rosen of the two justices who often saw the world through two starkly different ideological lenses. “She thought he was incredibly funny, and the fact that they kept that friendship steady and firm despite fierce disagreements was a testament to their mutual affection and devotion to the court and the Constitution.

“It’s important,” said Rosen “for the country to remember that message.”