Derrick Wang discusses ‘Scalia/Ginsburg,’ his opera about the Supreme Court justices


Baltimore-born composer Derrick Wang calls “Scalia/Ginsburg” an “operatic fantasy.” (Matthew Fried Photography)
October 4, 2013

The curtain rises Monday on the Supreme Court’s new term, and Baltimore-born composer Derrick Wang sees in the high court the potential for high drama. Operatic drama.

Wang, 29, studied music at Harvard and Yale universities and recently graduated from the University of Maryland’s law school. He is at work on “Scalia/Ginsburg,” a composition he describes as a “bit of an operatic fantasy” roughly based on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” In the story, Justice Antonin Scalia must pass through a series of trials with the assistance of his court colleague and frequent intellectual adversary, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The libretto draws heavily from the decisions of the two jurists — good friends who frequently differ in their interpretation of the Constitution but heartily agree in their love of the opera. Scalia is portrayed by a tenor, Ginsburg by a soprano.

After hearing a preview of Wang’s work in progress, the real-life and deeper-voiced Scalia told National Public Radio that “the music was wonderful,” adding, “you know, if I had my choice I’d be a tenor.” Ginsburg remarked that “if God could give me any talent in the world, I would be a great diva.”

Wang spoke recently with The Washington Post’s Emily Langer about precedent (legal and otherwise), Julius Caesar, the First Amendment and the utility of law school. Edited excerpts:

When many people think of opera, they think of women in helmets with horns. Where did you find the idea for an opera about the Supreme Court?

Certainly, I have nothing against horns and helmets. I recently saw a production that had both, and it was excellent. How did I get the idea for this? I was studying constitutional law and reading through case after case after Supreme Court case, and then suddenly my eyes alit on what I guess are the three magic words: Scalia, J., dissenting. And I read what came after that, and I thought, ‘This is the most dramatic thing I’ve ever read in law school.’

In counterpoint to that, on an opposing side on some of these issues was Justice Ginsburg, and she had her own style: lyrical, with a steely strength of its own and also very witty. So it was that dramatic counterpoint between these two styles of writing and these two points of view and then the discovery, of course, that [Scalia and Ginsburg] are actually good friends who spend lots of time together and go to the opera together. And I thought, this is an opera. That combination of conflict and friendship, I thought, was too tempting to resist.

Conflict and friendship is a theme that comes up in many operas over many centuries.

There is definitely a tie to operatic history. To write this opera, I developed a technique which I called operatic precedent. Just as a court decision relies in part on previous influential cases, the opera “Scalia/Ginsburg” takes as its jumping-off point quotations and paraphrases from previous influential operas. I like to think of it as a gentle parody of operatic proportions. For Justice Scalia, his first aria is a “rage aria” in the Baroque opera seria style. He rushes on, and he proclaims, ‘The justices are blind! How can they possibly spout this? The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this!’ And these words are set in this style of music that I think is appropriate for some of the more passionate dissents of Justice Scalia. Also, it is a fixed and formal structure that is very much associated with the 18th century. So what better way to represent Justice Scalia’s take on constitutional interpretation, which, if I may be so bold as to generalize, and may he forgive me for this, is that the Constitution ought to be interpreted in the light of its original meaning, which derives from the 18th century?

I read that certain passages for Justice Ginsburg begin in a 19th-century style and then evolve. Any message there?

Musical references provide a commentary on the law. Justice Ginsburg’s aria about constitutional interpretation begins in earnest and in sort of a Verdi style. Then it turns into a variation on itself, at which point the style goes into a more contemporary style. It actually becomes a bit of a jazz waltz. And then by the end, we’re in kind of a gospel/pop territory. So as the character sings about how we as a society have evolved over time, and how that informs our approach to constitutional interpretation, that is reflected in the music.

Besides the idea of precedent, how do you translate the high drama of the court into the high drama of the opera stage?

The libretto that I’m writing is certainly heavily inspired by the opinions of the two justices themselves. At certain points, some of the phrases will pop up verbatim; in other instances, I have sort of operatically reconceived the underlying spirit of those quotations in a way that fits the particular musical moment. And so, for example, the stanza from Justice Ginsburg’s opening aria that goes, ‘You are searching in vain for a bright-line solution to a problem that isn’t so easy to solve — but the beautiful thing about our Constitution is that, like our society, it can evolve.’ The idea that the Constitution [is] evolving is something that Justice Ginsburg has expressly addressed, and that’s an example of taking a direct quotation and reaching for the spirit of that and turning it into operatic text.

You’re not Handel writing about Julius Caesar. You’re writing about living figures. What’s that like?

There’s that wonderful immediacy to it that I think is part of what drew me to conceive of this opera in the first place. I’m not writing about Julius Caesar, as important a historical figure he might be. I’m writing about people, brilliant jurists who affect our lives and the direction of our country and society in the decisions they make. When you think about writing about living people, you naturally wonder how they’re going to react to it. I was fortunate in that the justices first said that I didn’t need to worry — there’s the First Amendment, so no problem.

What did the experience of writing this music teach you about the law, and what did your study of the law teach you about music?

I think writing the opera gave me an even deeper understanding or deeper appreciation of the importance of precedent in our legal system. There are all these dramatic implications that arise when a decision a hundred, two hundred years ago sets us on a certain course.

That’s the case with music, too.

When influential art is created, all subsequent artists have to account for that in some way, certainly. I think that writing this opera has given me this rich appreciation for a rich tradition that we’re lucky to have.

And as far as the legal side of it goes, I think there are parts of the tradition perhaps that we are happy with and parts of the tradition that we as a society today are not happy with. Understanding how we got to this point from that legal perspective gives us a more nuanced appreciation for what judges have to go through — the kinds of battles they might have to fight to find what they deem to be the correct solution to a problem. That’s a very big theme that runs throughout [‘Scalia/Ginsburg’].

Did you go to law school in case opera didn’t work out?

I wouldn’t say that. Intellectual property law was very interesting to me, and that was the main driver for my attending law school. But I also wonder how many people in this day and age go to law school sort of in the way that you described. It’s certainly a changing industry.

Do you know how the opera ends?

Yes. But I don’t want to give it away.

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