Justice Scalia’s life, character inspired opera

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/02/17/justice-scalias-life-character-inspired-opera/

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia last weekend marked the end of an era and left a gaping hole on the United Sates Supreme Court. The Justice, who was well known for his intellect and acerbic wit, served as a role model and mentor to a generation of conservative lawyers.

But few suspect that he was also a playwright’s muse.

Justice Scalia was the inspiration for not only a play, but an opera based on his longtime friendship with his ideological opposite, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Upon Scalia’s death, Ginsburg wrote a tribute to her friend that cited his pugnacious, precise prose and quick wit, and quoted from “Scalia/Ginsburg,” the opera about the friendship of these two opera-lovers and philosophical opponents.  Scalia’s divisive character also inspired a play entitled “The Originalist.”

The Originalist” (which takes its title from Scalia’s judicial philosophy of interpreting the Constitution based on the Founders’ original intent) depicts Scalia engaging in debates with one of his law clerks, a young Harvard Law grad who subscribes to a different judicial philosophy. Set in the Supreme Court term that ended in 2013, the two argue about one of the term’s most controversial cases, United States v. Windsor, which addressed the issue of whether the federal government was obliged to grant benefits to same-sex couples married under state law whose marriages weren’t recognized elsewhere at the time.

Between rounds of verbal sparring (or perhaps even during them), the two develop a friendship and mentoring relationship. As director Molly Smith said in a 2015 interview with The New York Times, “This is a boxing match. What the play does is what any good play does: It humanizes the combatants.”

Actor Ed Gero played Scalia and had the opportunity to meet the Supreme Court Justice before the show opened. The two bear a strong resemblance, which Gero says is no real surprise: “His mother’s family and my mother’s family came from villages that were about 10 kilometers apart in Italy, so we don’t have to go too far back to be sharing DNA,” Mr. Gero said in an interview with The Times.

“The Originalist” playwright, John Strand, said that Scalia had fascinated him for a long time.

“He’s kind of a lightning rod,” Strand wrote on the Arena Stage’s page, the D.C. theater that put on the play from March 6 – May 31, 2015. “Half the country thinks of him as a monster and half thinks of him as a hero. I love to explore why that is. And how can you resist a character who’s a brilliant jurist and also a showman at heart?”

Not long after “The Originalist” ended its run, Scalia was back on the stage in the opera “Scalia/Ginsburg,” which had three performances in July of 2015 at the Castleton Festival in Virginia.

The opera was written by Harvard and Yale music grad, Derrick Wang. Perhaps not surprisingly, Wang also has a law degree.  In the comedic opera, the University of Maryland School of Law grad tells a “Christmas Carol”-esque story in which Justice Scalia is trapped in the Supreme Court’s courtroom by a figure resembling a Greek god called “The Commentator.” Displeased by the frequency with which Scalia dissents from the majority of the Court, the Commentator calls for Scalia to justify his legal reasoning, saying that the only way Scalia can leave the courtroom is by passing three trials.

Just then, Ginsburg bursts through the ceiling, quipping, “It’s not the first time I’ve had to break through a ceiling,” referring to how she broke through glass ceilings to rise in the legal profession when few women were working as lawyers and judges.

Throughout the rest of the opera, which draws from Verdi, Puccini and even the Star-Spangled Banner (Scalia: “Oh, Ruth, can you read? You’re aware of the text./Yet so proudly you’ve failed to derive its true meaning), the Justices go through the various trials together.

So how did Wang come up with this unlikely idea for an opera?

As Wang told NPR in 2013, the flash of insight came while reading Scalia’s dissents in law school:

“I realized this is the most dramatic thing I’ve ever read in law school … and I started to hear music — a rage aria about the Constitution. And then, in the midst of this roiling rhetoric, counterpoint, as Justice Ginsburg’s words appeared to me — a beacon of lyricism with a steely strength and a fervent conviction all their own. And I said to myself, ‘This is an opera.’ ”

Scalia and Ginsburg’s shared love of opera is well-known, and Ginsburg attended the world premiere of “Scalia/Ginsburg” at the Castleton Festival in July, 2015, later saying “I loved every minute of it.” The opera’s libretto draws on statements made by Scalia and Ginsburg, court cases, opera history, and comes with extensive footnotes.

Scalia saw the show in 2013 when it received a partial airing as part of the Washington National Opera’s young artist program. Scalia told NPR, “It was wonderful,” and was thrilled that his part was written to be sung by a tenor: “If I had my choice, I’d be a tenor.”

Contact Lizzie Short at [email protected]