The Other Passion of RBG

Regardless of your political views, there was one unmistakable truth about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Opera was what she loved. #RBG #Opera #Classical

The world lost one of its best known and most loved members of the judiciary when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on the 18th of September this year. Among the many tributes were that of opera companies and performers. Ginsburg loved opera, and even studied music (piano and cello) in high school and college.

The late Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a cameo role in Fille du Régiment at the Washington National Opera, 2016. Photo by Scott Suchman/WNO.

Fate would cast very different direction for this woman from Brooklyn, New York. Through it all, she never stopped loving music, and often jumped at the opportunity to speak about her passion for it outside of the courtroom. This playlist, which will contain historical and performer notes in addition to the music, were selected from numerous interviews she gave about the subject.

Rest In power, Justice Ginsburg. I hope this show does you justice as well.

Puccini: Girl of the Golden West

Tracks: Un Poker
Lead: Franco Pomponi; Vocals (The Kentucky Opera) with piano accompaniment only, recorded live, 2014
Language: Italian

This was Ginsburg’s favorite Puccini opera, stating that in his better known works, such as Madam Butterfly, the women do not fare well in them.

Image courtesy of the Kentucky Opera. Pomponi is center. 2014.

Synopsis: Possibly the first spaghetti western, this opera tells the story of a woman who owns a saloon, protects a keg of gold, preaches from the Bible and will do anything to protect her outlaw lover. It is set during the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800’s.

Composer: Considered the greatest Italian opera composer after Verdi, Puccini, from the Tuscany region of central Italy, was originally rooted in the 19th century Romantic movement but eventually became a star of the verismo movement, and it’s best known composer in that genre.

Performer: Franco Pomponi is one of the world’s leading baritones, and performs frequently at live venues large and small around the world, impressing critics with his mastery of Italian legato singing. Legato, for the uninitiated, is a term that describes amazing flow without breaks.

Verdi: Il Travatore

Track: Che più t’arresti, Tacea la notte, Di tale amor
Conducted by: Fausto Cleva, 1961
Performer: Leontyne Price
Lanuage: Italian

Though she has stated that Othello by Verdi is her favorite of his operas, Ginsburg often spoke about her favorite singer, Leontyne Price, witnessing her Metropolitan Opera House debut in 1961 as the character Lenore in Il Trovatore.

(l-r) Tenor Franco Corelli, soprano Leontyne Price and Opera General Manager Rudolf Bing backstage at Salzburg Festival, Austria, 1960. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera House.

Synopsis: Il Trovatore, which translates to “The Troubador”, is set in the environs of Zaragoza, the capital of the Kingdom of Aragon, and in the mountains of Biscay, around 1412. It is actually several different stories, and not one continuous piece.

Composer: Verdi, considered one of Italy’s greatest operatic composers, was born in Northern Italy. He worked tirelessly, and in his early days, composed 20 operas in just sixteen years. He didn’t become famous Rigoletto, in 1851. Among his other works are several based upon Shakespeare plays.

Performer: Price, originally from Laurel, Mississippi, is considered one of the greatest singers of opera of the 20th Century, and at one time was its highest paid performer. Being a Black woman in opera at the time when there were few persons of color in that world, she often had to endure racism from her critics who, and I can’t even make this up, thought she sounded “too black”. In solo recitals, she often split her repertoire between opera classics and what are historically called Negro Spirituals.

Beethoven: Fidelio

Track: Abscheulicher wo eilst du hin (translation: You monster! Where will you go?)
Conductor: Colin Davis, 2007
Performer: Christine Brewer, recorded live with the London Symphony Orchestra
Language: German

Another personal favorite of Ginsburg, though not in her top 5 of operas she wanted to people to discover, as she stated in a radio interview with WMFT.

Christine Brewer, 2006. Photo by Laura Morton, The San Francisco Chronicle.

Synopsis: Fidelio tells an unusual story: a noblewoman name Leonore comes to the prison where her husband was jailed and disguises herself as a boy in order to rescue him. Unlike many operas, it is short, only being in two acts.

Composer: German composer Beethoven is of course one of the best-loved and best known composers of classical music. His Fifth symphony in particular is often referred to as the most recognizable in all of Western music, with it’s ominous four note opening. Fidelio was his only opera.

Performer: Originally from Illinois, Brewer is a soprano who was actually a music teacher before she made her career as a performer. She received her first big break singing in another Midwestern city, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Though not as well-known as some of her contemporaries, BBC Music magazine named her one of the 20 great sopranos of the 20th Century.

Britten: Billy Budd

Track: God, ‘O Mercy!
Conductor: Kent Nagano, 1991
Performer: Thomas Hampson with the Halle Orchestra of Manchester, England
Language: English

This is the only opera Ginsburg spoke of highly to originate from England.

A portrait of the composer Benjamin Britten from 1948.Photo by Denis De Marney/Getty Images.

Synopsis: Billy Budd is based upon the second most famous work by American author Herman Melville, the creator of Moby Dick. Both of these works focus on men at sea. In this opera, it is set on a British Navy ship during the French Revolutionary War of 1797.

Composer: Benjamin Britten is one of the few classical or operatic composers originally from England to make a name for himself in the world stage. His mother was his biggest early supporter, hoping to make him the “fourth B”, after Brahms, Bach and Beethoven.

Performer: Hampson is one of the most recorded artists in any musical genre, with a discography that includes over 170 releases. Originally from Elkhart, Indiana, much like Leontyne Price, he got his start singing in church as a child. He grew up in Spokane, Wahsington, and attended USC in Southern California.

Handel: Julius Caesar

Track: Fleet O’er Flowery Meadow Gliding (live)
Conductor: Sir Charles Mackerras, 1984
Performer: Dame Janet Baker, the English National Opera Orchestra
Language: English

History buff Ginsburg loved this opera, and it is based upon actual events.

Dame Janet Baker in the title role of Julius Caesar, 1984. Courtesy of the English National Opera.

Synopsis: Julius Caesar was not originally in English, but in Italian. The title role was also written for a man. The opera is set in about 47 B.C., during the Roman Civil Wars, and is derived from the story of Caesar travelling to Egypt to find his nemsis Pompeo. There he meets Cleopatra.

Composer: Handel, originally from what is now part of Germany, became a British naturalized citizen in 1727. It was in England where he found his greatest fame as a composer. In addition to his works Messiah and Water Music, his work can be heard in the British Coronation Anthem “Zadok the Priest”, which has been played at every coronation by the Royal Family since 1727.

Performer: Dame Janet Baker is no stranger to the work of Handel, performing in several other operas of his, including Rodelinda and Ariodante. Originally hailing from Yorkshire, she worked as a bank teller prior to becoming a performer. Even after being hit by a bus early in her career, which caused her a lifetime of back pain, she nonetheless continued to become one of the most important singers in England of operatic music.

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

Track: Ohne Mich (live)
Conductor: Hans Vonk, 1985
Performers: Anna Pusar Jeric, Theo Adam and the Philharmonie Dresden
Language: German

In the words of Justice Ginsburg: “The part I would most like to play, if I were a diva, is the Marschallin from Der Rosenkavalier.”

Costume design for the Marschallin character in Der Rosenkavalier. Illustration by Erte, 1980.

Synopsis: Der Rosenkavalier is a comic opera in three acts with four main characters. The Marchallin has a young lover who is smitten with another woman he is to present a rose to from her soon-to-be husband. What follows is an exercise in what it means to be young, in love, following one’s heart and eventually, owning up to the reality of the moment.

Composer: Richard Strauss, in addition to being a composer and conductor, was also an accomplished musician as well, playing the violin and piano. Born in Munich in what was then called Bavaria, he achieved his first major success with Salome, based on the last original work of Oscar Wilde. He not only conducted in Europe, but in the United States as well.

Performer: Anna Pusar Jeric was born in a small town in what was once called Yugoslavia. Though she was well-known in opera circles, especially
with her work in Verdi operas, it was this performance of the Marchallin that brought her worldwide recognition, as it was used to reopen to Dresden Opera house in 1985 after its restoration.

Performer: Theo Adam, a German bass-baritone, actually hailed from Dresden. He was a member of the Staatsoper Dresden for his entire career, but did play dates outside of Germany, including The Met. In addition to Strauss, he is most famous for playing roles in Wagner operas, and was even a music teacher in his hometown.

Mozart: Le Nozze de Figaro

Track: Porgi, Amor (live)
Conductor: Karl Böhm, 1968
Performer: Edith Mathis with the German Opera, Orchestra and Chorus
Language: Italian

“My all-time favorite is The Marriage of Figaro.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Portrait of Mozart, 1789. Illustration by Theodore Thomas, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project.

Synopsis: The Marriage of Figaro is a comic opera that tells how the servants Figaro and Susanna succeed in getting married, foiling the efforts of their philandering employer Count Almaviva to seduce Susanna and teaching him a lesson in fidelity.

Composer: Mozart, born in what is now Salzburg, Austria, found his initial and lasting fame in Vienna, but with little money to show for his tireless work. By the time of his death at the age of just 35, he had composed over 600 pieces of music. Mozart, though his time was brief, is one of the most influential of all the operatic and classical composers.

Performer: Edith Mathis, originally from Switzerland, is a voice many of you have probably heard but not recognized by name. She was one of the two women’s voices you hear in the film The Shawshank Redemption in the library scene, along with Gondula Janowitz, from this very opera. Mathis made her debut as the second boy (!) in another Mozart opera, Die Zauberflöte.

Mozart: Don Giovanni

Track: A Cenar Teco
Conductor: Lorin Maazel, 1979
Performer: Ruggero Raimondi and the Orchestre National de France
Language: Italian

In referring to he favorite opera, Ginsburg said the following: “On some days, my favorite would be Don Giovanni.”

Ruggero Raimondi in the Don Giovanni film, 1979. Directed by Joseph Losey.

Synopsis: Another one of Mozart’s operatic comedies, it is based upon the story of Don Juan. The title character is an irresistible, yet irresponsible and amoral youth who is loved by women almost as universally as he loves them.

Librettist: Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote the libretto for three of Mozart’s opera’s, Cosi Fan Tutte, this one and The Marriage of Figaro. Born in Italy in what was then called the Republic of Venice, he originally was a priest and taught Latin, Italian and French. In later years, he became bankrupt, moved to the U.S., and worked as a grocer in Pennsylvania and a bookseller in New York.

Performer: Proof that great opera performers and not born, but made. Raimondi initially was very nervous and slightly stage shy early in early perfomances. Undaunted, directors and conductors worked with him early in his career to help him easy his stage fright. In addition to stage performances, he transitioned well into film and television, even becoming a director himself.

Wagner: Götterdämmerung (Twilight of The Gods)

Track: Flieght Heim Ir Raben
Conductor: Georg Solti, 1958
Performer: Birgit Nilsson with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Language: German

New York Times writer Francesca Zembello interviewed Ginsburg for the publication, and they spoke at length about the “Immolation” scene form this opera.

Birgit Nilsson on the Swedish 500 Kronor note, 2012. Courtesy of the Government of Sweden.

Synopsis and Performer: This is from the final scene in the final part of the Ring Cycle, where the character Brünnhilde literally sets herself on fire. It is considered one of the most epic and difficult parts to perform in any opera. Originally from Sweden, Nilsson, who sings this track, is considered to be the finest modern interpreter of this part, and the gold standard; or, at least the 500 Kronor standard, which her face has graced the front of since 2012.

Cultural Relevance: There’s a terrible and crude line you hear at times in older films and television programs: “It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings.” What this is in reference to is this scene, which in its full configuration, is about 20 minutes in length. The character of Brünnhilde is so much associated with the operatic form that even EMI, back in the late 1980’s, released an album called “Heavy Classix”, which featured a large framed woman, in Viking warrior garb, with a shield, a spear, and of course, a helmet with two horns and long blonde braids.

Composer: Wagner’s influence is such that there is even an adjective attributed to his work and this series of operas, called “Wagnerian”. It refers to anything that is loud, heavy, long, full of power and of course, an emphasis on drama.

Conductor and Producer: The recordings that Solti made for Decca of the Ring Cycle made him an international star almost overnight. John Cushlaw, the producer, didn’t want to keep going to Bayreuth Festival annually in Germany to record them live. In a radical departure for opera, the duo recorded them in the studio, and the series of albums, which comprise of 19 vinyl LP’s total, are considered the finest recordings of opera in history, even over 60 years after their initial release.

Love to you all.

Ben “Daddy Ben Bear” Brown Jr. 
Host, Show Producer, Webmaster, Audio Engineer, Researcher, Video Promo Producer and Writer

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