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Justice Scalia: An Operatic Inspiration

Justice Scalia: An Operatic Inspiration

The composer-librettist of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg shares a memory of the late Antonin Scalia (1936–2016), Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Justice Scalia: An Operatic Inspiration

by Derrick Wang


Justice Scalia inspired me.

At first, I found inspiration in his writing. As a composer studying constitutional law, I was reading case after case after Supreme Court case — when suddenly I came upon the three magic words: “Scalia, J., dissenting.” And as I read the fiery opinions that followed, I began to hear music: a rage aria about the Constitution.

A rage aria is a type of song made famous in Italian operas of the 1700s. Like a Scalia dissent, it is passionate, virtuosic, and grounded in an eighteenth-century tradition. And when it’s done right, even if you don’t always share the character’s perspective, you’re still captivated by the performer’s brilliance.

What would an actual Justice Scalia rage aria sound like? I wondered. I reread his dissents, listening for the music in his words — the staccato cadences, the analytic crescendos, the torrents of coloratura eloquence — and I began to write:

The Justices are blind! 
How can they possibly spout this? 

The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this!

Then, amidst this roiling rhetoric, I heard a counterpoint: the words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with a lyricism and steely strength of their own. And I realized: this was more than just a song.

This was an opera.

* * *

What inspired me most about Justice Scalia was his unlikely friendship with his colleague and sometime judicial adversary, Justice Ginsburg.

“My best buddy on the Court is Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” Justice Scalia had famously said — a sentiment Justice Ginsburg shared.

It’s said that conflict is the essence of drama — and there was no shortage of conflict between their ideologies. Yet even their sincere disagreements gave way before a close personal bond that included family gatherings, vacations, and even the occasional appearance onstage as supernumeraries at the opera.

That friendship, in all of its depth and complexity, would take center stage in the opera Scalia/Ginsburg. It would inspire an operatic buddy comedy, in which two friends work together to overcome obstacles, trading zingers all along the way.

Meanwhile, the profession they shared would inspire the very telling of the story. In a nod to the rigors of legal scholarship, virtually every stanza of the script would be based on specific words the Justices had written or said. What’s more, in an homage to legal precedent, key moments in the score would reference famous passages in operas of the past.

Ultimately, the title characters would join in a central duet: in it, their words might disagree, but their voices would remain in harmony — thus demonstrating the power of their friendship through music. I jotted down a phrase:

We are different, we are one.

* * *

But if Justice Scalia inspired me and countless others, he too had his own inspirations. Throughout his life and career, Justice Scalia worked tirelessly to uphold his values, following a path blazed by a man who he felt embodied the ideals of hard work, integrity, and the American Dream.

I learned this firsthand on June 27, 2013, in the East Conference Room of the Supreme Court, when we first presented excerpts from Scalia/Ginsburg. My two singers warmed up, my law professor beamed, all while Nina Totenberg documented the event for NPR.

And then I saw them — my operatic muses. Justice Ginsburg greeted me with quiet warmth; Justice Scalia greeted me with a twinkle in his eye — which I chose to interpret as a genial “All right, kid, show me what you got.”

We performed Justice Scalia’s rage aria (“The Justices are blind!”) and Justice Ginsburg’s response (“You are searching in vain for a bright-line solution”). Then, the tenor, in the role of Justice Scalia, began to sing the aria “He built stairs”:

My father came from overseas…
The steps he took, he made on his own, 
With strength of will and firmness of stone, 
To reach the vision he’d pictured in his prayers: 
He built stairs…

Afterward, Justice Scalia was generous in his reaction. “It was wonderful,” he said in the interview that followed. In the coming months, he would publicly join Justice Ginsburg in watching a scene from Scalia/Ginsburg presented by the Washington National Opera, and in penning a preface to the libretto when it was published in the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts.

But the memory that stays with me most is a private one — one brief moment from that summer afternoon at the Supreme Court. The interview was ending, the guests dispersing, when Justice Scalia took me aside, away from the microphone. He looked me in the eye.

“Thank you,” he said softly, “for writing about my father.”

Derrick Wang is the composer and librettist of Scalia/Ginsburg, an American comic opera about the power of friendship in a divided world.

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‘Scalia/Ginsburg’ at 2017 Glimmerglass Festival

‘Scalia/Ginsburg’ at 2017 Glimmerglass Festival

Listen: Derrick Wang speaks with WBUR’s Here & Now about ‘Scalia/Ginsburg’

Listen: Derrick Wang speaks with WBUR’s Here & Now about ‘Scalia/Ginsburg’