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?