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Opera North Schedules a Sharp-Edged, Contemporary Production

  • Lawyer and composer Derrick Wang will talk with the audience after Opera North's Oct. 12 staging of "Scalia/Ginsburg," Wang's opera about the ideologically opposed Supreme Court justices who found common ground in their shared love for opera. (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Correspondent
Wednesday, September 05, 2018

The dissenting opinions of Supreme Court justices, at first blush, might not sound as if they were the stuff of opera.

Then again, an art form that has given audiences quarrelsome gods, vengeful police chiefs, Masonic ritual and the threat of eternal damnation certainly has the breadth for an interpretation of the legal opinions of, and abiding friendship between, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Scalia/Ginsburg, a comic opera by composer and lawyer Derrick Wang, will have its Upper Valley premiere in an Opera North production on Friday, Oct. 12 at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. Wang will be on hand to participate in a post-performance discussion.

Opera North will take its production on the road for a performance on Sunday, Oct. 14 at the Dana Center at St. Anselm College in Manchester.

The opera was first performed in 2013 at a special presentation before the justices themselves at the Supreme Court. It then had its world premiere at the Castleton Festival in Virginia in 2015, and was part of the repertoire in 2017 at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The Opera North production marks the debut of a chamber music orchestration, Wang said in a phone interview from Baltimore, where he teaches classes on law and music at the Peabody Conservatory. He is also an attorney who specializes in intellectual property and works with creative start-ups.

Both Justices Scalia and Ginsburg, who tended to stake out opposing positions on legal principles before Scalia’s death in 2016, were not shy about voicing their disagreements with each other. But their professional debates did not continue off-stage, nor did they alter their regard for each other. They were noted not only for their close friendship but also for their shared passion for opera.

Wang’s research turned up the ways in which opera was part of both justices’ lives from a relatively early age. The question was how to bring together the operatic form with the significant constitutional issues brought before the Supreme Court, and do so in a way that was light and humorous, he said.

“The Supreme Court is very much a part of the national conversation right now. I thought the best and most interesting way to honor the Supreme Court in song and in opera was to craft an opera that mirrored the way that Supreme Court justices engage with the law,” Wang said.

“For that reason the construction of the opera is a commentary on law and opera. Just as justices refer back to landmark decisions I wanted to refer back to famous moments in opera.”

Opera North wanted to do Scalia/Ginsburg, said general director Evans Haile in a phone interview, because of its wit, and partially because of the rancorous tenor of the national political conversation.

“The timing could not be more perfect,” he said. “It’s about two people who could not disagree more ... but found a commonality between them, based on their love of opera.”

Wang has been interested in both music and law since he was a child growing up in Maryland, he said. He began playing the piano at a young age and was already sketching out ideas for musicals or operas based on the books he was reading at the time. His youthful ambitions ran up against the reality of copyright.

“It was my first insight into how law affected the arts,” he said. He pursued both music and law in his collegiate and post-graduate work, with an A.B. in music at Harvard, a master’s of music from Yale and a law degree from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.

Between his composing, law practice and speaking engagements in which he discusses the “unifying power of music before lawyers and judges, music and law have come together in a very beautiful way for me,” Wang said.

Wang, of course, had hundreds of years of operatic (and legal) precedent to draw from in creating his dramatic versions of Scalia and Ginsburg, and a third character loosely based on the Commendatore from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, who delivers his own judgments on two of the best-known Supreme Court justices in recent decades.

The characters aren’t direct descendants of famous operatic figures; instead, Wang said, the operatic legacy comes through in “the situations and the words and the ways in which characters have expressed themselves in a certain moment.”

The plot of Scalia/Ginsburg, he said, is “something like (Beethoven’s) Fidelio meets The Magic Flute. That’s the easiest way of articulating it without getting into 200-plus footnotes.” Musical references to Verdi, Rossini, Bellini and Gilbert and Sullivan are dotted throughout.

Judge Scalia enters delivering a so-called “rage aria” about the Constitution, which were fast intense, sung screeds characteristic of operas by Handel and Mozart; Ginsburg enters singing about breaking the glass ceiling. The action moves forward through a series of trials in which the characters justify both their legal principles, and their friendship.

“One of my goals was to create a dramatic experience which, true to its characters, would bring together people of different backgrounds with music. I wanted to explore these contrasting ideas in a deep but harmonious way, and in a digestible way. I’m inching towards a food simile which has to do with layer cakes, a layer of opera, a layer of law,” Wang joked.

The intimacy of the Briggs Opera House is a natural setting for both a three-person opera and the chamber music orchestration, featuring seven musicians, Haile said.

Although the emphasis is on humor rather than sturm und drang, Scalia/Ginsburg, Haile said, is a “great example of how music and art coalesce with current events.”

Scalia and Ginsburg were fans of the opera, said Wang. So much so that a version of the libretto, which contained more than 200 footnotes explicating both legal and musical precedent and was published in the Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts, had prefaces written by the two justices.

Justice Ginsburg also included excerpts from the libretto in her 2016 book, My Own Words. And it was cited in her preface to the 2017 book Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived.

Scalia/Ginsburg will have one performance on Friday, Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. There will be a post-performance discussion with composer Derrick Wang and other guests. Tickets are $55. All seats are general admission. Tickets can be purchased through the Opera North website at operanorth.org/singers-copy.html.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.